Susan K. Livio and Brent Johnson report for NJ.com:
Political organizations that raise money to influence elections and policy in New Jersey would be forced to disclose their donors under a bill a state Senate panel approved Thursday that would help shine a light on so-called “dark money” in politics.
The measure comes after non-profits with ties to Gov. Phil Murphy and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney came under fire in recent weeks.
New Direction New Jersey, a group that promotes Murphy’s agenda, last year pledged to disclose its donors but recently reversed its decision, citing “increased attacks from powerful special interests seeking to preserve the status quo."
Under current state law, so-called “super PACs,” 527 groups, and 501(c)4 “social welfare” organizations are allowed to keep their donors secret as long as they spend less than half of their funds on political activities.
But this bill, approved 12-0 by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, would require groups that spend at least $3,000 bolstering a candidate or influencing policy to publicly reveal donors.
The groups would have to disclose contributors who give them more than $10,000 a year and report expenditures that exceed $3,000, according to the measure (S1500).
“There’s a growing cynicism that happens between the public and those who are elected to represent them pretty much on all levels of government,” the bill’s prime sponsor, state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said in a statement.
“Bringing greater transparency through more disclosure will help empower voters," Singleton added. “They deserve more information about the interests working to influence the political process so they can make informed decisions.”
The campaign reports would have to be filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, a nonpartisan organization that has advocated for more transparency in politics. An analysis by ELEC found the top 25 special-interest groups in the Garden State spent $74 million trying to influence elections and policies in 2017, with $41 million coming from “dark money” groups.
“This reform measure will lift the veil of secrecy that surrounds the actions of organizations working to influence the political process,” said state Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, also a prime sponsor. “As candidates, we disclose our donors and expenditures. The disclosure requirements should extend to the groups that are spending to get favored outcomes.”
New Direction New Jersey is run by members of Murphy’s inner circle, including Brendan Gill, who was the Democratic governor’s campaign manager. Long-time Democratic operatives and Murphy advisers Steve DeMicco and Brad Lawrence also run the group along with pollster Danny Franklin.
New Direction New Jersey won’t reveal its donors even though Murphy has repeatedly called on its leaders to be transparent. The group has run ads advocating the governor’s agenda, including during tense budget negotiations last summer with Democratic leaders in the state Legislature.
Sweeney, D-Gloucester, was also the target of criticism after a 501(c)4 aligned with his confidante, South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross. Public Service Electric & Gas mistakenly donated $55,000 to super PAC linked to Norcross, General Majority, just months after the Legislature passed a nuclear subsidy plan that benefited the company, according to news reports. The money only became known because General Majority has to disclose its donors under the law.
Sweeney has said he supports the new bill, which also increases how much money donors can give — including from $2,600 to $3,000 for candidates, and from $8,200 to $9,300 for political committees.
Both the Democrat-controlled state Senate and Assembly would need to approve the legislation before Murphy could decide whether to sign it into law or veto it.
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