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Independent groups making political contributions tougher to measure

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While a growing pool of special interest political action committees has increased contributions to New Jersey candidates since the state enacted pay-to-play laws in 2006, New Jersey's campaign finance watchdog commission said PAC spending may decline leading up to the 2013 gubernatorial election — though that's only because another donor subset is beginning to exploit a loophole in the state's reporting rules.

"Unlike PACs, which are required to register and disclose their activities with us on a quarterly basis and stay within our set contribution limits, independent-only groups are not required to register or disclose anything or limit their activity … as long as they don't use the magic words: 'We vote for or against a candidate,'" said Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. "It's really hard to predict what's going to happen with campaign spending next year, because we may be seeing more independent committee expenditures that we have no control over."

Brindle said for the 2009 gubernatorial election, independent groups spent more than $14 million on advertisements highlighting "the support or opposition of a specific issue — not outright naming or showcasing a specific candidate, but making it obvious to people who know each candidate's take on an issue which candidate they're advertising for."

In 2011, when all 120 legislative seats were at stake, independent groups contributed only $1 million, though Brindle said he expects "a lot more of this activity by these groups going forward."

Still, an ELEC report released today shows the more than $18 million in PAC spending in 2011 trumped the independent groups' contributions.

According to Brindle, of the 291 New Jersey PACs contributing to campaigns in 2011, 25 groups — mostly made up of unions and trade associations like the New Jersey State Carpenters and the New Jersey Education Association — contributed more than half of total PAC spending in 2011. That's more than twice the $4.4 million the groups spent in 2010, but less than the $11.3 million they spent in 2009, when the governor's seat and 80 Assembly seats were up for grabs.

While unions may ditch the PAC route and form independent committees to contribute to future campaigns, Brindle said they won't be giving up their spots as top contributors anytime soon, because "there are still a lot of issues that concern working people, plus the state of economy encourages union members to participate more in elections."

"These trade groups have been front and center in PAC activity," Brindle said. "PACs are a customary way for unions to participate, and while I think they'll maintain or increase their spending levels, it's possible that groups like the Carpenters will go from a PAC to an independent group to do that."

Brindle said ELEC is pushing to have state legislation passed that would apply the rules PACs have to follow — namely involving the disclosure of contributions — to independent groups.

"A lot of what came out of the Citizens United case in the U.S. Supreme Court was controversial, but one thing it did that was good was it came out strong for contribution disclosure," Brindle said. "That case allows states to pass legislation to make independent groups disclose contributions, but there's still no such state law to provide for that to happen here. And I have to be honest, I don't think it will happen by 2013."

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