2020 was a year rocked by COVID-19 across the nation, and in New Jersey too.
Combined with hot-button issues such as marijuana legalization, massive state subsidies for the state’s nuclear power plants, and corporate overhaul of the state’s largest insurers, lobbying spending last year soared to an all-time high of $105 million.
That’s according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, the state’s campaign finance watchdog. They found that overall spending between 2019 and 2020 jumped 3.4% compared to the year prior which was $101.6 million.
The March 9 report found that the heaviest activity was on legislation and executive orders regarding COVID-19 – be it public restrictions or health care requirements for institutions such as hospitals.
Spending was poured into the campaign to legalize marijuana, and controversial, years-long efforts allowing Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey to change its corporate structure from a health services corporation to a non-profit holding company.
Horizon spent $4.3 million last year and contributed $2.9 million to Move Health Care Forward, which “ran a major advertising blitz for the corporate overhaul.
The health insurer contends the move was vital for Horizon to implement upgrades and diversify its business operations, and its efforts to secure state approval were ultimately successful last year.
According to public records, several of the state’s largest utility companies sunk in millions of dollars in a prolonged campaign convincing the state’s public utilities board why a $300 million state subsidy should go toward keeping afloat the only three nuclear energy plants in New Jersey.
The Engineers Labor Employer Cooperative 825 spent $1.24 million in 2020, according to NJELEC. Public records show their lobbying efforts focused on the $14.5 billion state tax incentive bill, public labor contract legislation and marijuana legalization.
Of the 188 laws enacted in the past two years, 76 of them were related to COVID-19. Meanwhile of the 132 executive orders Gov. Phil Murphy signed since Jan. 1, 2020, 105 of them were related to the pandemic.
Murphy signed a slew of orders restricting public gatherings and brick and mortar businesses, requiring masks, and keeping many schools and other public places closed.
“Given the unprecedented nature of this crisis, it follows that there would be a major legislative and executive response, as well as heavy engagement by the lobbying community,” NJELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle, said on March 9.
The New Jersey Education Association – the state’s largest school employee union – spent $4.9 million in 2020. Brindle noted that much of its activity focused on Murphy’s policies on school openings.
Meanwhile, the pro-Murphy political action committee New Direction New Jersey spent $4.9 million promoting the governor’s agenda ahead of his 2021 reelection campaign. The NJEA has long been one of the biggest financial backers of New Direction NJ.
The health network Hackensack Meridian Health spent $577,986 in 2020, while RWJBarnabas Health spent $454,957 and Atlantic Health System spent $377,940, putting them among the 25 biggest lobbying spenders last year.
All three health networks met with members of the governor’s office and other state health officials through 2020 regarding COVID-19 executive orders such as public funding, availability of personal protective equipment, and regulatory waivers for health care providers work during the pandemic.
The New Jersey Business and Industry Association spent $485,957 in 2020, NJELEC records found. Those efforts focused on “COVID-19 relief bills, tax and budget issues, workplace safety issues related to the marijuana legislation,” as well as “energy/environment, workplace development and innovation,” said an NJBIA spokesperson.
Pro-marijuana advocates spent $1.5 million in lobbying, and contributed $2.3 million to secure approval of the legalization ballot question.
“The combined $3.9 million in political spending last year was the largest annual total since a bill legalizing medical marijuana in New Jersey took effect in 2010,” Brindle said. Virtually all reported spending during the past decade came from pro-marijuana groups, not opponents.”
That’s up from $2.1 million sunk into legalization in 2019, $1.86 million in 2018 and $887,121 in 2017 – a total of more than $10 million going back to 2010.
“Obviously, their investment paid off since the state has enacted two medical marijuana laws, a decriminalization bill and a broader legalization bill along with other related legislation,” Brindle said.
The Ohio-based Scotts Miracle-Gro emerged as the largest financial backer, having donated $800,000 for the 2020 ballot question alone and spent $396,968 on lobbying, plus another $850,400 in pro-marijuana campaigns.
In 2019, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities approved $300 million of state subsidies which Public Service Enterprise Group, or PSEG, said is vital to help keep open their three nuclear energy plants in South Jersey.
In 2018, spending to swap the NJBPU in favor of the subsidies topped $5 million, according to NJELEC records. PSEG and First Energy/Jersey Central Power & Light made up the lion’s shares of lobbying costs that year. In 2020, First Energy/JCPL spent $424,000.