AP NEWS

NJ weighs requiring donor disclosure for independent groups

February 24, 2019

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Donors who fork over at least five figures to independent spending groups in anonymity could be disclosed publicly under new legislation moving in New Jersey’s Legislature.

The Democratic-led Senate unanimously passed a measure overhauling the state’s disclosure requirements last week, sending the bill to the Assembly, where Democrats are also in charge.

The bill has been around since at least 2016 but made it onto lawmakers’ radar after one group that supports Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s agenda backtracked on a promise to disclose its donors.

Murphy has said he favors disclosure but stopped short of backing the legislation moving through the Legislature.

It’s unclear whether the Assembly will take the bill up.

A closer look at the issue:

___

DONOR DISCLOSURE

Under New Jersey’s campaign finance laws, organizations calling themselves social welfare groups, which frequently spend money to influence voters, aren’t required to disclose who their contributors are.

Some do, however, volunteer to disclose their contributors, in some cases under pressure from political adversaries, the media or both.

The legislation moving through the statehouse now would require such groups to disclose all spending over $3,000, up from $1,600. But a key change is that contributors that give over $10,000 would also be disclosed under the proposal.

It’s a measure the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, the watchdog group that tracks election-related spending, has pushed for and endorses.

The proliferation of independent spending in state politics has taken off in recent years after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which paved the way for unlimited spending from separate groups called super political action committees.

The most recent gubernatorial and legislative elections in 2017, for example, saw about $50 million in spending by independent groups, up from about $40 million in the preceding gubernatorial year of 2013.

___

WHY NOW?

The timing of the legislation overlaps with headlines about a group called New Direction New Jersey, which is one of the social welfare groups that would be covered under the bill. The group spent about $500,000, including on TV commercials last year, to promote Murphy’s policy agenda.

Initially, the group had said it would disclose its donors but then reneged.

The pro-Murphy advertising was decried by lawmakers, particularly Senate President Steve Sweeney. Sweeney said one of the spots around budget time sent a message that Murphy was trying to strong-arm his agenda through the Legislature, rather than work with legislators.

___

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin is meeting with stakeholders and discussing the bill with his caucus, according to spokeswoman Liza Acevedo. Murphy has said he wants to see legislation to require disclosure but hasn’t weighed in on this particular legislation.

There’s nothing in the law stopping social welfare groups from disclosing their contributors, but during a hearing on the legislation, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about the effect on donations if donor identities are disclosed.