ELEC director says new law creates no immediate impact on state elections, but philosophical groundwork unmistakable

Following today’ 5-4 Supreme Court monumental ruling enabling big business, unions and nonprofits untrammeled access to federal campaign contributions, Jeff Brindle, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), said his office is reviewing the decision and its effects on New Jersey. 

On its face, the ruling enables campaign spending at the federal level that is allowable under law at the state level, Brindle said.

“We’re looking at the decision as we speak,” said the ELEC director. “I really don’t see any vulnerability to campaign finance statutes involving candidates for state office in New Jersey. This decision states that a ban at the federal level is unconstitutional. Here in New Jersey, no such ban on corporations or unions exists. With regard to federal spending, it very clearly lifts the ban on independent spending.”

A professor of elections law at Seton Hall University, state Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton) pointed out, however, that campaign finance laws govern how much a corporation or union can spend, when and to whom – specific measures that philosophically clash with the federal decision. A corporate supporter of a campaign in New Jersey can’t donate more than $2,600 per election, for example.

“Somewhere, John D. Rockefeller is smiling,” Baroni said of the decision, referring to the robber baron brazeness that triggered early early campaign finance bans.

Today’s ruling maintains strictures on corporations outright donating to candidates running for federal office, but enables corporate partners to form political action campaigns that can freely contribute, said Rebecca Freed, counsel for Genova, Burns and Vernoia.

“In New Jersey, it may not impact us because we already allow corporations and unions to make donations, but some of the language could do something conceivably to our pay-to-play restrictions,” said Freed, who agreed that while the immediate impact on state campaigns may be negligible, the ruling creates potential long-range impacts for elections in New Jersey.

 The ripple factor prompted Baroni to immediately call for a holistic review of all state campaign finance laws.

“I don’t want to wait until the 2011 elections to find out what this means,” the senator said. “We should address this in a bipartisan way. The decision can be very broadly read and raises questions – profound questions.

“It has always been a philosophical question whether you can impose limits. If I offer this question on a test, half of my students would ‘yes,’ you should, and the other half would say, ‘no.'”

The court’s majority decision coming down firmly on one side of that question hinges on the argument that one cannot presume the corruption of those members belonging to corporations and unions seeking to donate to a given campaign.

Part of Baroni’s call for a wide-ranging review of campaign finance laws today in the wake of the Supreme Court decision focused on casinos, utilities and other regulated industries, and while Brindle would not speculate early about the effect of the ruling on state regulated casinos to donate to campaigns, Freed said the implications of the decision could be impactful.

“Whether that would have any impact would have to be determined by the courts,” said Brindle.

State Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic City) said he did not anticipate an impact, that is – immediately.

“I don’t know if the law is going to have an impact here because of the state licensing that applies to casinos,” Whelan said.

But because New Jersey’s regulations on casinos and insurance companies stem from a 1911 federal law forbidding the intervention by those industries in campaigns access on a “presumption of impropriety,” today’s decision questioning such presumptions could have a trickle-down effect, said Freed.  Again, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision, the edge now goes to unhindered corporate access to campaigns and creates pressure for challenges to state regulations governing political contributions by casinos.

“I think in New Jersey we might not be able to put those presumptions on those industries,” Freed said.


ELEC director says new law creates no immediate impact on state elections, but philosophical groundwork unmistakable