From time to time, the New Jersey legislature will pass new regulations to constrain politicians’ behavior, such as the pay-to play laws and the proposed clean elections law that would result in public financing of campaigns. But the Election Law Enforcement Commission, the regulatory agency charged with monitoring compliance is not receiving funding increases equal to these new responsibilities.
Just ask Democratic State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), who had to amend the governor’s fiscal 2009 budget in May to stop the state from cutting $750,000 in funding from ELEC’s administrative budget in order to give it a more modest cut of $250,000, to $4.647 million.
“What I did was lobby, and state in front of the state government committee how important I thought it was,” Weinberg said. “It was nothing heroic. I was just calling attention to the facts here.”
Republican State Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton), who teaches election and campaign finance law at Seton Hall Law School, also pushed for the reinstatement of funding, although he believed that no funding should have been cut whatsoever. When the cuts were first announced in April, Baroni wrote a letter to Gov. Jon Corzine about ELEC’s budget troubles, including its inability to fill 21 vacancies in its staff with present funding levels.
“[The $750,000 cut] would have been a death-knell” Baroni said. “To cut it [$250,000] when they already have a shortage of personnel is extremely shortsighted.”
While Weinberg said that she considered ELEC the “first line of defense” against corruption, she said that the budget climate was too bad to allocate the commission more funding, and that ELEC received a $5 million supplemental allocation to oversee the upcoming gubernatorial elections.
“I think they did as well as any other priority in our budget,” Weinberg said. “We’re not in the business of expanding funding right now.”
ELEC’s Executive Director Frederick Herrmann, said that the cuts to his office would not impede its work, but with the current levels of funding it would be unclear if he could fill any staff vacancies.
“We just are going to have to play out in seeing how many people we’re going to be able to hire,” Herrmann said. “It’s early in the fiscal year ’09 and we’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to fill some positions but at this point we just don’t know.”
Like Baroni, he said that a further loss of funding would likely cause a reduction in ELEC’s capabilities.
“There are certain efficiencies that we’re going to look at if we lose more money,” Herrmann said. “We won’t be able to do the same job we could if we had more people, but we’re going to be able to do our job.”
Baroni said that Herrmann was understating the situation, noting that of the ethics reform bills passed in 2004, which included the lauded state level “pay-to-play” laws, twenty explicitly required ELEC to do more work, and that without a corresponding increase in resources the agency would become overstretched.
He added that he was sure ELEC would do as good a job enforcing the laws as their funding would let them.
“Fred is an extraordinarily tactful leader,” he said. “They’ll do it, because they’re a very dedicated group of folks, but we could have done better and we should have done better.”
Weinberg said while she believed that ELEC was at the limit of what it was currently being assigned, it was no reason for the legislature to abandon ethics reform and that she herself had current proposals she was hoping to have heard, including one banning the use of multiple PACs by a single candidate.
“I think they’re already overstretched,” Weinberg said. “But I hope the legislature keeps moving forward more than they have in recent years. We haven’t exactly made giant steps.”
Jim Walsh, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, a citizen watchdog coalition, said that his organization continually stresses ELEC’s importance every year. He said that the survival of ELEC depended on the ability of the legislature to raise additional funding to pay for ELEC’s activities, something neither senator, nor Herrmann mentioned.
“That’s going to be up to the legislature and whether or not it’s going to be willing to take bold action like raising the income tax on the wealthiest individuals or closing corporate tax loopholes that are causing us to pay higher property tax bills and lose valuable services like ELEC,” Walsh said.
However, despite the differences of opinion on how best to keep ELEC functioning, everyone contacted for the article stressed that the cuts did not result from any ill will from the legislature.
“I think it’s just shortsightedness,” Baroni said. “Maybe I’m optimistic.”