The Pay-to-Play Effect in New Jersey’s 2015 Statewide Elections

2015 is a unique year in New Jersey politics, as the New Jersey Assembly races are the only set of elections scheduled for this year that extend beyond county and municipal lines. Even the Assembly Members’ colleagues in the Senate are not up for re-election until 2017.

With the State’s attention turned to the Assembly, this is an opportune time to examine how pay-to-play laws in effect at the State, county, and municipal level may affect this year’s Assembly campaigns.

Contributions to Assembly candidates will not generally affect a vendor’s eligibility for most government contracts in New Jersey. There are, though, two limited scenarios in which contributions to Assembly candidates may impact a vendor’s eligibility for government contracts. The first is when the member of the Legislature represents a district that is part of a State redevelopment entity and the second is when a vendor seeks a non-fair-and-open contract with the Legislative Branch itself.

Although we cannot discount the possibility that one of New Jersey’s hundreds of local pay-to-play ordinances may cover contributions to legislative candidate committees, most local ordinances do not extend to legislative recipients, as pay-to-play restrictions must be narrowly tailored to withstand constitutional scrutiny. For example, even some of the most stringent pay-to-play ordinances in the State (such as the ordinances in effect in Jersey City, Paterson, and Camden) do not cover contributions to legislative candidate committees.

So, to return to our 2015 example, if an Assembly member does not represent a district that is part of a State redevelopment entity and does not serve as the Speaker of the Assembly, a vendor likely may contribute more than $300 per election to that candidate without negative pay-to-play implications. Before writing a check, however, vendors should keep mind that there is a distinction between contributing to a legislative candidate committee and to a legislative leadership committee (contributions greater than $300 to the latter will impact eligibility for contracts with the State of New Jersey and its departments and agencies).