Is the Time Ripe for New Jersey Pay-to-Play Reform?

For more than a decade, New Jersey has had in place a series of pay-to-play laws that impose reduced contribution limits and heightened disclosure requirements for government contractors. The goal of these laws is to ensure fair contracting procedures and to remove favoritism from the procurement process.

But are these laws working as intended when seemingly innocent mistakes leading to relatively small political contributions remove otherwise qualified and competitive bidders from government contracts? News last month that a paving company was disqualified from $7 million in New Jersey Executive Branch contracts because of a $500 political contribution has government contractors throughout the State understandably concerned about their own compliance procedures. The disproportionate effect of a relatively small political contribution has highlighted the need to reform New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws.

And Jeff Brindle, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, agrees. The need for reform is not a new issue, but the dramatic nature of this ineligibility determination may provide the impetus to begin this process in earnest.

In the current legal landscape and a blockbuster New Jersey election year that will see the election of a new governor as well as 120 State legislative races, government contractors need to focus on their pay-to-play compliance. Merely assuming that you are in compliance is simply not good enough, when a contribution of only a few hundred dollars can disqualify your company from millions of dollars of contracts. At this point in the election cycle, even one unintentional contribution can disqualify your company for up to 5 ½ years and, starting in April, refunds will not cure an excessive contribution once we have entered the 60 days preceding the 2017 primary election.

Genova Burns LLC has been at the forefront of pay-to-play compliance since New Jersey’s law was enacted more than a decade ago. If you are unsure of your compliance procedures, Genova Burns LLC can assist you in navigating the current legal landscape as well as any reforms that the future may bring. If you have any questions or would like to discuss your pay-to-play compliance program, please contact Rebecca Moll Freed, Esq. at 973-230-2075 or Avi D. Kelin, Esq. at 973-646-3267.

Less Than One Month: NJ ELEC Broadens Annual Pay-to-Play Form & Requires Companies to Disclose Additional Information

Recent changes in the annual filing requirement for companies doing business with local, county or state government in New Jersey may make the process for completing this year’s ELEC Business Entity Annual Statement (“Form BE”) more complicated and time consuming. Although ELEC has yet to issue guidance on these additional requirements, government vendors must still electronically file the disclosure form by the March 30 submission deadline.

In effect since 2006, Form BE requires every company that receives payments of $50,000 or more from New Jersey government entities to disclose those contracts as well as its reportable New Jersey political contributions. All businesses that receive such payments must file regardless of whether the company or certain associated people have made any reportable contributions, but the level of detail required by Form BE depends on whether you have any contributions to report.

There are two new requirements for the 2015 reporting year (due March 30):

  • Fair-and-Open Check Box Requirement: Check a box to indicate whether each contract was awarded pursuant to a “fair-and-open-process”; and
  • Certification Requirement: Certify that the statements and/or information contained in Form BE are true and acknowledge that if any of the statements or information are willfully false that you may be subject to punishment.

Expect completing your 2015 Form BE to be more time consuming than in the past. Here are some obstacles to be on the alert for:

  • Businesses may find it challenging and time consuming to identify whether a contract was awarded pursuant to a “fair-and-open-process” given that your 2015 Form BE may cover long-term contracts that could very well have been awarded years ago.
  • In many cases it will be unclear how vendors should classify Executive Branch contracts awarded pursuant to a competitive process because the phrase “fair-and-open process” is a term of art with respect to county, municipal and legislative contracts.
  • In past years, ELEC asked the person filing Form BE to simply “acknowledge” that he or she was familiar with the information contained in the Form BE. Now, ELEC is asking the person filing Form BE to certify to the accuracy of the statement and to acknowledge that he or she may be subject to punishment for willfully false information.

New Jersey Lobbying Reports Due on February 16, 2016

A business that engages in New Jersey lobbying must electronically file an annual report with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Although the filing is normally due on February 15, this year’s deadline is moved to February 16 because of Presidents’ Day.

Any business that expended at least $2,500 on New Jersey lobbying during the 2015 calendar year is required to file the annual lobbying disclosure—but the specific form to be used depends on the particular facts and circumstances of the company’s lobbying efforts.

Short-Form Disclosure (Form L-2) – A business that is represented by only one lobbyist may file a short-form disclosure that merely designates the lobbyist to file the annual report on behalf of the business. The lobbyist’s report would then cover all relevant information about the lobbying efforts of the business.

Compliance Tip: If you are relying upon an outside lobbyist to file on your behalf be sure to communicate that expectation to your outside lobbying firm.

Full Disclosure (Form L1-L) – In contrast, a business that is represented by more than one lobbyist (either in-house or through an outside lobbying firm) must file its own lobbying form. As you prepare this form, you will need the following information for each of your lobbyists or lobbying firms:

  • Lobbyist information;
  • Lobbying purpose;
  • Compensation of lobbyist;
  • Prior government service of lobbyist; and
  • Communications expenses.

Compliance Tip: For an in-house lobbyist who performs functions other than lobbying for your organization, you are not required to report that individual’s total compensation; rather, you should report only the portion of his or her compensation that pertains to lobbying.

Grassroots-Lobbying Disclosure (Form L1-G) – This form is geared specifically toward a business whose only lobbying activity is communicating with the general public, also known as grassroots lobbying. The information required to be disclosed on this form is focused on the relevant expenditures and communications of the business.

Compliance Tip: A communication with the general public for the purposes of this form does not include communications by a business to its members, partners, individuals, or stockholders. Similarly, communications required to be made by law are not communications with the general public in this context.  

Consent to Service of Process (Form L-3) – An out-of-state business that engages in New Jersey lobbying must consent to service of process within the State of New Jersey by filing this form.

Compliance Tip: This form is required for any company that is not authorized to do business in New Jersey and for any individual who is not a resident of New Jersey.

In addition, lobbying firms must file their own specific forms to report their lobbying activity from the applicable calendar year.

If your business has not yet determined its lobbying-disclosure obligations, there is still time to do so before the February 16, 20 deadline.

Top Ten New Jersey Pay-to-Play Myths

Now that David Letterman has hosted his last show, the universe is experiencing a distinct lack of top-ten lists. We are happy to take on this awe-inspiring responsibility in the best way we know how: with a list of the top ten New Jersey pay-to-play myths.

  1. MYTH: Contributions of $300 or less are always permissible.
    • FACT: Some stringent local pay-to-play ordinances do not allow contributions in any amount once a business entity has entered a contract (or even started negotiations for a contract) with the government entity.
  2. MYTH: Reduced contribution limits are the same before and during a contract.
    • FACT: As mentioned above, some local ordinances do not allow contributions, in any amount, to be made once a business entity starts negotiations for a contract even though they allow for reduced contributions prior to the negotiation period.
  3. MYTH: Contributions to New Jersey PACs are not subject to pay-to-play restrictions.
    • FACT: There are some local pay-to-play ordinances that cover contributions to PACs that were either “formed for the primary purpose of” or “that regularly engage in the support of” the jurisdiction’s candidates or elections. This is different than the treatment of PACs under statewide Executive Branch pay-to-play restrictions.
  4. MYTH: It is always permissible to contribute $300 to a candidate for the primary election and an additional $300 for the general election.
    • FACT: Some municipalities hold municipal elections once every four years and do not hold separate primary and general elections. So, in these jurisdictions, a contributor may only be permitted to contribute $300 over the course of four years. Also, some local ordinances impose a per-election-cycle limit, treating the primary and general elections as one unit.
  5. MYTH: Pay-to-play limits are the same for candidates, political party committees, and New Jersey PACs.
    • FACT: Pay-to-play limits are often based on reportable periods. A reporting period generally runs on a per-election basis for a candidate committee and a per-calendar-year basis for party committees and PACs.
  6. MYTH: Contributions to legislative candidate committees are not subject to pay-to-play.
    • FACT: Contributions to legislative candidate committees may have pay-to-play implications if the legislator serves as the presiding officer of either house or represents a legislative district that includes part of a State redevelopment area.
  7. MYTH: If a county or municipality has its own local ordinance in effect, there is no reason to worry about the State laws.
    • FACT: Local ordinances and the State laws can sometimes offer divergent limits. For example, some local ordinances impose a per-calendar-year contribution limit for a candidate, while the State laws work on a per-election basis for candidates. The best approach is for a business entity to comply with both the State laws and any local ordinance in effect.
  8. MYTH: Only shareholders and officers of a business entity are covered by pay-to-play.
    • FACT: Some local ordinances extend the definition of a business entity to include any employee who earns more than $100,000 in a calendar year. Spouses and children of a covered individual may also be subject to pay-to-play limits.
  9. MYTH: Contributions to federal PACs and candidates are subject to New Jersey pay-to-play restrictions.
    • FACT: Federal elections are outside of ELEC’s jurisdiction and thus contributions to federal committees are not subject to New Jersey pay-to-play laws.
  10. MYTH: Only procurement contracts are subject to pay-to-play restrictions.
    • FACT: Some municipalities have redevelopment or land-use ordinances, which set reduced contribution limits for a business entity that enters redevelopment agreements or seeks certain land-use approvals.

Will 2015 be The Year for Pay-to-Play Reform in New Jersey?

New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws have been described as a “dizzyingly complex array of statutes, ordinances and executive orders.” New Jersey currently has different laws in effect that apply to State government contracts, State redevelopment agreements, county, municipal and legislative contracts, Board of Education contracts (where Boards of Education are receiving state aid) and a statewide disclosure law that applies on both a pre-contract and annual basis. This list of laws also does not include the hundreds of local ordinances that are currently in effect at the municipal and county levels of government in New Jersey, nor does it include municipal redevelopment ordinances, (which may regulate political activity by redevelopers and their consultants) and land use ordinances (which may cover those seeking land use approvals in connection with development projects).

Although ELEC has been pushing for reform for years, with the recent Atlantic County pay-to-play decision, 2015 may just be the year that existing laws are streamlined to eliminate the multifarious patchwork of ordinances, which currently vary from locality to locality. Until that time, however, government contractors need to stay on top of the varying (and sometimes conflicting) labyrinth of laws, including compliance with ELEC’s upcoming Pay-to-Play Annual Disclosure filing requirement.

Independent Spending in NJ’s 2013 Elections Reaches a Record-Breaking High

Last week the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission announced  “[a]n unprecedented explosion of independent special interest spending pushed the cost of the 2013 state elections to an all-time high . . .”  Although final numbers won’t be available until January, reports filed with ELEC indicate that spending on New Jersey’s 2013 elections reached a record $129 million.  Special interest groups are responsible for spending nearly $41 million independent of parties and candidates on state campaigns during the recent election cycle.  This constitutes approximately 32% of the total amount of money spent statewide (compared to .3% in the 2005 and 15% in 2009).  Thus, the numbers have doubled since New Jersey’s last gubernatorial election.

This year marks the first election in which the governor’s office and all 120 seats of the legislature were up for grabs since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens UnitedSome argue that decision spurred this dramatic growth in independent spending, although it is worth noting that, unlike federal law prior to Citizens United, New Jersey campaign finance law did not restrict independent spending by corporations.

Yet it is apparent that Citizens United marks at least a psychological sea change that has driven up spending by independent entities and dramatically changed election dynamics in the Garden State.