Analysis: In New Jersey Politics, Follow the Money — If You Can
It's no secret that money fuels politics. If you want to know why things are the way they are, follow the money.
Unfortunately, that's no easy task. While all elected officials are required to disclose a list of people who directly give them money, those donations are often a small fraction of the cash that truly influences an election or an issue.
Under current law, if you donate $10 to a political candidate, that candidate must disclose that donation in a report to the Election Law Enforcement Commission. However, if you donated $50,000 to what’s known as a “social welfare group,” it could remain a secret.
Average voters typically don’t have that kind of money to donate. The big money typically comes from special interests, who hope their donations gain them access to the elected officials who will be deciding issues that could impact their interests.
Gov. Phil Murphy has admitted soliciting such donations for a group called New Direction New Jersey. The group is run by some of Murphy’s closest allies, and spent $500,000 promoting Murphy’s agenda last year during tense budget negotiations. This is what good government groups call “dark money,” and its increasingly influencing elections and public policy in a way that is beyond the reach of average voters.
Legislation passed in the state Senate and pending in the Assembly could force the disclosure of who is dumping money into these social welfare groups so you can know who is trying to influence public policy. Why would lawmakers suddenly decide to shine a light on the dark money? It’s far from an altruistic epiphany. As with most things that happen in government, there is a political agenda.
This one grows out of the ongoing feud between Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester. Sweeney is still fuming over the ads New Direction New Jersey ran on Murphy’s behalf during last year’s budget fight. He also wants to blunt the impact of those ads this year and in the future. Sweeney also suspects some of the powerful labor groups that opposed his reelection to the Senate (including the New Jersey Education Association) are some of the biggest donors to New Direction.
And while this bill would force disclosure of donors for a group that supports Murphy, it is written in such a way that could exempt a similar group that has supported Sweeney.
Sweeney managed to muscle this bill through the upper house, but it faces an uncertain future in the Assembly. Speaker Craig Coughlin is still talking to rank and file members and stakeholders about the impact of the bill. There are also questions about whether Murphy would sign the bill, since it directly impacts an organization headed by some of his closest advisers.
If this bill becomes law, it could help you better understand who is trying to influence your elected officials and steer public policy. That appears to be an unintended consequence of the ongoing feud between the state’s two top Democrats.