TRENTON – As Brian Bergen argued Thursday against the Elections Transparency Act – a name that could have been coined by George Orwell – he remarked that the bill “rolls back years of progress.”
Assemblyman Bergen is a young fella; he wasn’t born until 1979. But he was right about progress being rolled away.
It was the Watergate scandal – a few years before Bergen was born – that inspired efforts all over the country to limit and/or control campaign contributions.
The break-in that began it all was 51 years ago and as we know, many today don’t know – or care about – history and the election reforms started five decades ago.
Combine that with the desire for political power and the result, opponents say, are bills like the Elections Transparency Act, which passed both houses Thursday by mostly a party line vote with Democrats in favor.
Louis Greenwald, the Assembly Majority Leader, who engaged in a brief conversation with Bergen on the Assembly floor, argued that the bill would take a stab at stopping “dark money” – campaign cash that as of now is unreported.
That is a worthy goal to be sure after an infamous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that cleared the way for such unlimited contributions on behalf of candidates by advocacy groups.
Bergen responded, however, that only a “small slice” of the bill deals with so-called dark money.
More broadly, Republicans, including Assemblywoman Aura Dunn, who like Bergen is from Morris County, said the bill makes a joke of transparency.
The act increases contribution limits to candidates on various levels. Supporters say this is necessary because of inflation and also because raising the limit would allow candidates to compete financially with so-called dark money groups.
However, the bill also eliminates local pay-to-play laws, which are designed to keep large contributors from getting jobs and contracts and also allows county political committees to set-up so-called housekeeping accounts. Critics, not surprisingly, call these “slush funds.”
Then, there is a provision to limit the investigatory power of the Election Law Enforcement Commission, or ELEC, the state’s watchdog agency, to two years. Now it’s 10.
When this was discussed last week, Senate President Nicholas Scutari quipped about the silliness of prosecuting someone for running a red light years after it happened.
OK, but many people might consider a campaign finance violation a bit more important than a minor traffic infraction.
Still, probably the most controversial part of the bill is a provision that would allow the governor to directly appoint members of ELEC. Now there is Senate confirmation.
Greenwald said that ELEC is not doing a very good job. Most recently, the commission failed to take action after its executive director sent an email perceived by some as insulting to gays.
Directors and commission members come and go as a matter of course. Giving the governor direct control over an agency that is supposed to be independent is something that can last forever.
That’s the problem.
It was Assemblyman Hal Wirths, a Sussex County Republican, who said bill opponents were a diverse lot. They included “good government” groups on the left, media commentators and conservative Republicans.
How odd, he said, for all of them to be on the same side.
An interesting tidbit, but as it turned out, an irrelevant one.