The two biggest spenders of special-interest groups lobbying on issues affecting New Jersey residents this past year surprisingly were focused on the same number: $300 million, but for different reasons.
Both Public Service Enterprise Group, the giant energy conglomerate, and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, the state’s largest health insurer, spent more than $2 million lobbying, even if it were not immediately apparent at the time. According to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission’son 2017 lobbyist spending, 2017 was a near-record year for lobbyist spending, at $90.8 million.
For PSEG, the target turned out to be the $300 million subsidy it is still seeking in legislation to keep its three nuclear power plants in South Jersey afloat. For Horizon, the goal was to oppose the taking of up to $300 million of its insurer’s reserves to fund a state program to prevent abuse of opioid painkillers.
Both issues fueled an explosion of spending. For PSEG, spending increased 535 percent to $2.4 million, a historic level, a $1.9 million increase from the previous year. Horizon tripled its spending over the prior year.
They were both fighting over $300 million — funds they could either lose (in Horizon’s case) or gain (in PSEG’s). A good example of how lobbying can serve as a primer on how money flows through government.
The issue of subsidizing its nuclear plants, which are facing economic challenges from cheap natural gas, is PSEG’s overriding top priority. Without the subsidies, it says it will close the plants, eliminating thousands of jobs.
The legislation to subsidize the plants is one of the most controversial of this year, and the one lame-duck bill concluded in January. Just look at the spending: Exelon, a co-owner of the nuclear units operated by PSEG, increased spending by 61 percent to $193,590.
Opponents of the subsidy also spent big. The New Jersey Coalition for Fair Energy reported expenditures of $939,058. The coalition comprises energy companies that compete with PSEG’s affiliate, PSEG Power, in the deregulated energy market. They include NRG Energy, Dynegy Inc., and Calpine Corp., among others.
PSEG, for its part, reported paying staff lobbyists $281,000, with $305,000 going to an outside agency, as well as nearly $1.8 million in communications.
“Most of the increase is related to the debate over the future of nuclear in New Jersey,’’ said Michael Jennings, a PSEG spokesman. “It’s a complicated issue. We have an ongoing educational campaign to increase awareness of the environmental and economic benefits that nuclear energy provides to New Jersey and the region.’’
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, had another perspective. “PSEG is spending millions on lobbying so that they can get billions from New Jersey ratepayers,’’ he said.
But they were not the biggest spenders; that distinction falls to Horizon, which spent $2.5 million. Much of that was used to fight former Gov. Chris Christie’s bid to force the insurer to turn over $300 million of its reserves to the state in order to help fund opioid abuse efforts. Christie’s efforts failed, but the standoff contributed to a brief government shutdown.
Horizon gave $1.4 million to the Latino Consumer Alliance, a 501c4 advocacy organization that ran a grassroots effort in that fight, including the creation of a website titled Hands Off Healthcare New Jersey. That was the third highest amount spent by a special interest group last year.
According to ELEC’s report, Horizon more than tripled its spending on lobbying last year. Horizon spokesman Kevin McArdle disputed that, however, saying that without the single cost of $1.4 million, Horizon spent less on lobbying than in 2016.
Two other groups spent more than $1 million on lobbying in 2017: Occidental Petroleum and the New Jersey Food Council.
Occidental Petroleum, which spent $1.2 million, is the legal successor to Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Company, which contaminated the Passaic River and was later identified as a Superfund polluter. They were fighting the legislation but have since agreed to pay the state $190 million toward cleaning the river. Occidental lobbied in support of resolutions and legislation that would hold companies responsible for their share of superfund cleanup costs.
The New Jersey Food Council spent $1.2 million in efforts opposing increases to the minimum wage.
ELEC’s list of top spenders is also noteworthy because of one group that usually makes the top 10 but didn’t: The New Jersey Education Association. But while the NJEA did not pay its usual amount in lobbying, it did spend $4.5 million in trying to unseat state Senate President Steve Sweeney. That state legislative contest was the most expensive in state history. — Lilo H. Stainton contributed to this story