Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Assembly Race Sign of Things to Come

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Assembly Race Sign of Things to Come

Article excerpt

For Assembly elections on Tuesday that few New Jersey residents know about or are expected to vote in, special interest groups have so far spent at historic proportions.

So what will that mean in 2017, when candidates for the Assembly, Senate and governor appear on the ballot? Record-breaking dollars pouring into the state for advertising, polling and consulting, said the state's election law enforcement leader. And barring any changes to state law, all of that outside money will skirt the contribution and disclosure requirements that campaigns and candidates must follow, thanks to a string of court decisions loosening campaign finance rules.

"I think we're going to see this independent spending skyrocket," said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission. "As each election cycle goes by, we're going to be setting records."

The 2017 election season is expected to see the biggest spending yet by outside groups -- PACs, super PACs and independent committees working separately from candidates and their campaigns -- for state elections in New Jersey. In 2013, the last time the Legislature and governor were on the ballot, special interest groups spent $42.1 million, accounting for 32 percent of the $130 million total, according to the commission. Brindle estimates the outside groups will spend upward of $60 million in the 2017 races. If the ballot includes a measure on whether to approve a casino or casinos in North Jersey, Brindle said, "then I think you're looking at $80 million" spent by outside groups.

The rise in outside spending in recent years correlates to the court rulings, most notably Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited independent contributions by individuals, businesses and non-profits. And non-profits and shell corporations don't have to disclose their donors, allowing for what is termed "dark money" to play a significant role in campaigns and elections.

Donations "could be coming from corporations, they could be coming from unions, they could be coming from individuals," said Richard Skinner, policy analyst for the Sunlight Foundation, a non- profit policy group in Washington, D.C. "We just don't know."

Candidates and political committees in New Jersey must disclose donors, and contributions are capped, but special interest groups are able to avoid those regulations because of the court rulings. As a result, their influence has grown. Even though outside groups have so far spent less than candidates and committees in next week's Assembly election, the $8.5 million they've laid out represents 42 percent of total spending, the highest percentage ever, according to the election law commission. Most of that outside money has flowed into three battleground districts, including District 38 in Bergen County. The $373,741 spent there by independent groups puts it third in the state for outside spending this year, according to the commission.

While the governor's race is two years away, independent groups and super PACs have already surfaced with eyes on that race. Allies of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and Sen. Ray Lesniak have all reportedly established super PACs. That does not necessarily mean those individuals will run for governor, and they are not allowed to coordinate directly with super PACs, but it does allow for those groups to lay the framework for a campaign well ahead of when potential candidates would declare. …

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