For more than a decade, New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws have provided a check on businesses’ ability to contribute money to politicians in the hope of getting a government contract in return.
Last year, political contributions by public contractors dropped to the second-lowest level since restrictions took effect,released by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission earlier this month. The $8.1 million in contributions from businesses was 11 percent lower than in 2015 and less than half the high of $16.4 million reported in 2007.
Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, said the lack of gubernatorial or legislative elections in 2016 may account for some of the decline, but the complexity of the law is also discouraging contractors from contributing directly to candidates and parties.
Under, all businesses that have $50,000 or more in public contracts and have made political contributions must disclose both contract and contribution details to ELEC by March 30th of the previous year. There are some exceptions, but most firms with state contracts totaling $17,500 or more cannot give more than $300 to candidates, political parties, and legislative leadership committees. A business that violates the prohibitions must either ask for a refund of any excess contribution promptly or relinquish its contracts for four years.
Although well-intentioned, the law has led to a decline in contributions to political parties and an increase in businesses giving to independent expenditure groups that are not subject to pay-to-play laws and don’t have to report their contributors, according to Brindle.
He has recommended a number of changes, backed by the commission, to reverse this trend and simplify the rules. The changes include consolidating pay-to-play restrictions into a single law; raising to $1,000 the amount contractors could give to candidates without jeopardizing their contracts and allowing even higher limits for contributions to party committees; requiring more contractors to file annual reports with ELEC; and restricting the amount contractors could give to political action committees. Many of these changes are contained in pending legislation.
The average contribution made by contractors in 2016 was $1,078, according to ELEC. The 10 most generous contractors, according to ELEC’s preliminary data, gave a combined $2.4 million in 2016, or 29 percent of all contributions. These are the top 10 public-contractor contributors — six engineers, three law firms, and one insurance brokerage — as well as their total reportable contributions and total contracts last year:
$430,920 in reportable contributions, $37.7 million in contracts
$374,750 in reportable contributions, $34.7 million in contracts
$360,250 in reportable contributions, $8.9 million in contracts
$341,425 in contributions, $34.3 million in contracts
$263,850 in contributions, $13.2 million in contracts
$137,200 in contributions, $3.7 million in contracts
$129,950 in contributions, $11 million in contracts
$121,130 in contributions, $1.1 million in contracts
$116,125 in contributions, $5.5 million in contracts
$114,355 in contributions, $1.4 million in contracts