By Nikita Biryukov | New Jersey Monitor
New Jersey lawmakers in both chambers are set to approve an overhaul of the state’s campaign finance system that, among numerous other things, would drastically increase how much donors can give to candidates and political parties.
The bill, expected to receive final votes in the state Assembly and Senate Thursday, would double the $2,600 limit on donations to candidates, roughly double the $37,000 cap on donations to county political parties, and triple the $25,000 maximum contribution limit to committees run by the state political parties and the Legislature’s leaders.
The donation cap changes have drawn little attention amid a furor over other provisions that would constrain the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission’s ability to enforce campaign finance laws and allow Gov. Phil Murphy to remake the four-member commission without Senate approval.
But critics say boosting donation limits would flood the state with campaign cash unnecessarily. Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris), who has opposed the bill, warned the heightened limits would disproportionately benefit incumbents — himself included — whose time in the Legislature has allowed them to develop connections with wealthy donors likely to contribute the maximum allowable amount.
“Those people get maxed out by everybody, and they’ll just get maxed out at the new rate,” Bergen said.
Contribution limits to individual candidates would double under the bill, rising to $5,200. Federal election law caps donations to congressional candidates at $3,300.
The current $2,600 limit has been static since 2005. Joe Donohue, deputy director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission, said inflation and new expenses have driven up the cost of campaigning by roughly 80% since that cap was set, an argument echoed by Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), the Assembly’s majority leader and a prime sponsor of the bill.
“The contribution limit increase is also a reflection that everything costs more today, and it’s no different in the other sectors,” Greenwald said.
Bergen argues the new limit would primarily benefit prominent lawmakers like legislative leaders and committee chairs who don’t need more campaign cash.
“The money will sit in their bank, and they’ll never spend it,” he said.
The campaign accounts for New Jersey’s state senators had roughly $10 million on hand at the end of 2022, according to a New Jersey Monitor review of campaign filings. More than half that amount, about $5.3 million, lay in the coffers of just five lawmakers, none of whom represent competitive districts.
Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), another prime sponsor of the bill, tops that list with just over $2 million in reserves. Scutari is not expected to face a serious challenge when he seeks reelection: There were three times more registered Democrats than registered Republicans in his district at the start of March, according to figures published by the Secretary of State.
The dynamic is slightly less pronounced in the Assembly. The body’s members are sitting on roughly $7.6 million in campaign cash, and the five Assembly members with the largest war chests have $2.7 million total.
Between a PAC and a hard place
Supporters of the bill, dubbed the Elections Transparency Act, have said it would help limit the influence of political organizations that don’t have to reveal their donors.
For more than a decade, party organizations have fought to stem financial wounds the U.S. Supreme Court inflicted when it ruled in Citizens United, the landmark 2010 case that limited the government’s ability to restrict independent election spending.
The decision has driven increasing amounts of money to political action committees and nonprofits with laxer disclosure rules — some of which the New Jersey bill would strengthen — and left relatively little for state party committees, their county counterparts, and legislative leadership committees run by top Trenton lawmakers.
This was clear in 2021’s elections, when independent groups poured nearly $42 million into legislative races and the gubernatorial election, according to the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Democratic and Republican state party committees and legislative leadership committees — collectively known as the “big six” — raised just $17 million in 2021.
Contribution limits to party organizations at all levels would increase under the bill. The $25,000 limit on donations to state committees and legislative leadership committees would triple to $75,000, while county parties’ $37,000 limit would roughly double to the same amount.
“Hopefully, more of the groups that are spending independently will cut bigger checks for the parties, and at least it will be open,” said Donohue. “It’s not that party officials can’t be corrupted — because they can be — but at least the public will know where the money is coming from.”
Strengthening parties will likely compound incumbency advantage, which is already strong here due to a quirk of New Jersey’s ballot design that sees party-backed candidates grouped together on ballots.
The practice, known broadly as the party line, lends party-backed candidates an advantage at the polls. Parties usually, though not always, award organizational lines to incumbents. Arati Kreibich, director of democracy organizing at the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, is a critic of the party line and of the bill, saying it would not change the state’s political system for the better.
“When we’re talking about New Jersey in particular, and we’re talking about our party system in particular, and we’re talking about how New Jersey parties operate in this ecosystem, I don’t really think the net result will be less corruption,” Kreibich said.
Greenwald cautioned that lawmakers aren’t expecting the bill to transform New Jersey’s campaign finance system overnight.
“It’s not going to be flipping a switch,” he said. “These are trends that have developed over a period of time, so I think it’s about setting foundations that — with the transparency and with the ability to have increased contributions over a period of time — we might start to see trends move backwards.”
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