Money & Politics: Fewer Paying to Play in NJ

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    Four years after New Jersey started requiring public vendors to disclose campaign contributions, donations from them have fallen by nearly a third, according to a report released Tuesday by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

    The report also shows that the value of public contracts going to businesses that make political donations decreased by 43 percent from 2006 to 2009.

    Commission executive director Jeff Brindle said that the impact is huge and that the agency's report reinforces previous studies that show fundraising by state and county committees have sharply declined.

    "The pay-to-play reforms of recent years appear to be reversing somewhat the dominance of political party entities that grew steadily from the earlier reforms enacted in 1993," he said.

    The laws, hailed as among the toughest in the nation when introduced in 2005, prohibit state agencies from awarding contracts worth more than $17,500 to companies that donate more than $300 to gubernatorial candidates or to county or state political parties. Only businesses with annual public contracts worth $50,000 or more must report their contributions to the commission.

    According to the election enforcement commission, contractors last year gave $10.7 million in political contributions, down from $15.1 million in 2006.

    The 1,820 contractors that reported donations last year had nearly $6 billion in public contracts. That figure is down from the $10 billion in contracts made by the nearly 2,300 contractors in 2006 who made political donations of more than $300.

    By 2009, that number of contractors was also down, by nearly 500.

    However, there is still a visible influence felt by top contributors in 2009, most of which are engineering and environmental planning firms that benefited from a bill passed last year allowing specially licensed private engineers to oversee the cleanup of more than 20,000 contaminated sites.

    Middletown-based T&M Associates, an engineering and environmental planning firm, gave the most to campaigns in 2009, with $534,000 in donations, and was followed by CME Associates at almost $500,000.

    Supporters of the measure said it would help move along many projects that have been delayed by understaffing at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

    Environmentalists objected, contending the Licensed Site Remediation Professional program puts public health at risk because there will be less government oversight to ensure cleanups are done properly.

    Jeff Tittel, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said one needs only to look at the top 10 list of donors to see that the problem is still happening.

    "Pay-to-play is still alive. It's just less about public contracts and more about pushing legislation to benefit themselves," Tittel said. "Now it's pay-to-pass-legislation."

    Another notable continual recipient of fat government contracts is highway contractor Joseph M. Sanzari, part-owner of Creamer-Sanzari Joint Venture. It received $86 million last year.

    Sanzari came under scrutiny in 2005 after it was revealed that he used his private plane to fly the then-chairman of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority on trips to Florida.