New Jersey business owners pursuing contracts with local governments are trying to ensure they haven't made political contributions to officials, but in a state with 566 municipalities, 21 counties and hundreds of public authorities, that's sometimes easier said than done.
The issue has become increasingly prominent in recent months, amid reports of Monmouth County deciding to drop its pay-to-play ban and a state investigation into contributions made by Birdsall Engineering Group.
That's helped Morristown-based law firm Porzio, Bromberg & Newman P.C. generate business from business owners looking for help navigating the complicated issue of donations. Porzio offers a subscription service that covers every local law, along with a blog that tracks any news of changes to the laws.
"It started because we had a lot clients who were asking us a lot of questions" regarding pay-to-play, said Porzio attorney Brian P. Sharkey.
Sharkey has found businesses generally understand the state's pay-to-play law, which prohibits state agencies from awarding contracts of $17,500 or more to businesses that made campaign contributions of $300 or more to candidates for governor, or to state or county political parties.
But the web of local laws has made it complicated, Sharkey said. A single inadvertent violation "can shut down, in some cases, your exclusive source of income," he said of businesses that rely on government contracts. "It can really jeopardize a company's economic condition."
Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey CEO Robert Briant Jr. agreed it can be difficult for contractors to keep track of all of the local laws. The simplest solution, he said, is for contractors to stay away from local contributions.
He added that since local pay-to-play bans focus on no-bid contracts, his members generally are safeguarded. He said a relatively small number of his association's members have been caught making pay-to-play mistakes, since the industry generally focuses on contracts that are put out to bid and awarded to the lowest qualified bidder.
"That's how we live," Briant said. "We always oppose any legislation or regulatory proposals that would try to weaken the low-bid process."
Heather Taylor, spokeswoman for campaign advocacy group the Citizens' Campaign, said businesses can still participate in the political process.
"You just can't contribute if you want to do business" in a town, she said. "I think some of the confusion is that different towns set different limits, and we would like to see a uniform policy at the state level that's top-to-bottom, so that questions don't arise."
Sharkey said the database offered by his firm allows business owners to be politically engaged by letting them know where and to whom they can contribute.
"You want to be able to operate within the system, while giving to the people that you support" without affecting business contracts, Sharkey said of company owners.
Sharkey said different companies have made different uses of his firm's services. While smaller businesses pore over the database themselves, larger firms have just asked the firm to vet their contracts based on local laws.
If a town passes a new pay-to-play restriction, "once it's available, we get the ordinance," Sharkey said. "As soon as something like that happens, our subscribers know about it."
Sharkey noted that local changes, such as Monmouth County's decision to repeal its law, can take months to appear on government websites.
"There just wasn't a good resource where everything was up to date, so that's why we wanted to put this database together," he said.
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