Dark Money: War for the Soul of the NJ State House

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Democratic state leaders of the Legislature intend on seeking a veto override of the Governor’s conditional veto of ‘dark money bill’ on Monday, today, despite being urged to seek a compromise. This is yet another blatantly political attack on the leadership of our Governor at the expense of the people of New Jersey.

Every major headline I’ve read in New Jersey over the last few weeks says that we are in a “war”. And we are. We are at war for the soul of New Jersey’s State House. 

But let’s be very clear: Governor Murphy did not start this war. He ran for office with the promise of changing “politics as usual” in the state of New Jersey, and he was duly elected by a voting majority who chose him to implement his vision for New Jersey. Throughout the last 1.5 years, Governor Murphy has worked to implement policies that create a better world for the families of New Jersey, to much success.

But politics in our state has long been dominated by a small group of self-serving political bosses – some elected and some not – who have a disproportionate amount of control over every aspect of our government, from awarding the electoral party line to favored candidates to granting tax incentives to a few connected entities that, in turn, support their candidates. We all know who they are. We have all complained about them for years. And they are the ones that have started this war – a war that has nothing to do with good policy and everything to do with maintaining the “business as usual” status quo that Governor Murphy – and many groups like mine – have been fighting against.

It would be bad enough if this war was a partisan battle as we see too often in Washington. But here in New Jersey, the war was started by a Democratic Legislature that should be working in partnership with the Democratic Governor –not against him – and by unelected power bosses who are waking up to the realization that their power may be sunsetting.

This “dark money” bill is an example of how this war is playing out. Instead of uniting behind the Governor to support a clean bill based on sound policy, the Legislature created a bill that punishes political advocacy groups that advocate on behalf of the people of New Jersey, and exempts trade and chamber groups that year after year pour money into the coffers of our legislators. 

The Governor has worked in good faith to make improvements to the bill. His conditional veto would have forced all political advocacy groups – including the New Directions 501c4 that advocates for his agenda – to operate on the same playing field in the electoral world. And he wants to force greater disclosure for companies that receive government contracts and taxpayer subsidies.

Most important, Murphy’s conditional veto would exempt the work of political advocacy groups (501c4s under the IRS tax code) that represent the public in the halls of Trenton and the Legislature. No other state in the country has donor disclosure language that would go as far as the bill the Legislature passed. And nearly every political advocacy group that has a national organization would be forced to disclose its top donors across the country. Especially in this digital age, this would have a chilling effect.

Private citizens should be able to support organizations that advocate on their behalf – without potentially putting a target on their backs for the causes they believe in. This is both an argument for equity and privacy under the law – and an override would face immediate litigation challenges because of these core constitutional issues.

To be clear, business trade organizations, government contractors, and corporations don’t have to disclose their donors to the public in the bill currently under consideration. In effect, the people behind legislators’ big money would stay in the shadows – which is just the way the power bosses want it. The want THEIR donors to stay hidden, while donors to smaller organizations like mine would be exposed. As someone who was specifically targeted by her Congressman for the work that I do with NJ 11th for Change, I can tell you that this has real consequences

Even now, the Legislature and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin could amend new legislation to address these concerns. The failure to work to amend the legislation and reach a compromise with the Governor speaks volumes on how the Legislature sees this fight — a convenient way to embarrass Governor Murphy. To be clear:  No legislator in New Jersey who supports this bill can claim they support this bill as “good policy”. This is politics, pure and simple, and it is designed to empower the same millionaires and big corporations being protected by legislators who are unwilling to put the millionaires’ tax up for a vote. Legislators who support the override bill are telling us one thing – they would rather take an unprecedented vote against a Democratic Governor in order to preserve their political alliances, rather than be on the right side of this issue.  And that is a message the grassroots are watching.

The vote over this bill is more than a fight over policies. It is a fight being forced on us by people who feel threatened by a new way of doing politics, a way that works for everybody, and not just the special interests and the political elite.

And if we back down when the going gets tough we are giving the bosses exactly what they want – an easier path to maintain their power at the expense of meaningful progress. That’s not something I’m willing to do.

Comment (1)

  1. Bill Orr

    Bravo! Well-stated.
    It’s not just Sweeney, Coughlin and bosses who are the problem – who say “No. No.” Our legislative Dems all too often are split such that a just a few of them are enough to prevent passage of sensible progressive policies; i.e. millionaire tax, legalizing recreational pot, etc.

    Reply

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