“Special Interest” PACs

          “And the money kept rolling in from every side

          When the money keeps rolling in, you don’t ask how.”

                                                   (Tim Rice: Evita)

When the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) reported last week on 2009 Political Action Committees (PACs) spending, much of the attention was on the fact that labor unions were New Jersey’s biggest spenders. The Star Ledger pointed out Governor Christie’s past unsuccessful efforts to put public workers unions under the same pay-to-play restrictions on campaign donations as private companies that seek government contracts.

Overlooked in the discussion was the growth of New Jersey PAC’s with generic sounding names that spend their funds to benefit a particular candidate or party. In releasing the report, Jeffrey Brendle, ELECs Executive Director, highlighted the problem:  

We suspect that there is a growing number of so-called “special interest” PACs in recent years that really appear to be appendages of parties or candidates. For some, it is just an extra way to promote a particular candidate. One clue to this activity was a much higher turnover rate between 2005 and 2009 within the three PAC categories – other ongoing, ideological, and civic associations – that are most vaguely defined.  Turnover by these types of PACs was about five times the rate exhibited by professional, union or regulatory industry PACs. It becomes a problem, however, if the PACs are used to try to circumvent state contribution limits. For instance, public contractors generally are subject to a $300 limit.

ELEC commissioners on a bi-partisan basis have recommended that the legislature empower ELEC to prevent one group from establishing numerous PAC’s which may be designed to evade contribution limits under “pay-to-play” laws. With the ongoing review of gaming activities and the governor’s plans for privatization such is long overdue.

The situation has been made more complex with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. Nonetheless, the rapidly increasing funding directed to politicians calls out for reform. The New Jersey Coalition for Clean Elections is a “statewide coalition dedicated to reducing the corrupting influence of money in politics and establishing a permanent, state-wide system of full public campaign financing.” If you are unfamiliar with the group, check it out.

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