NJ lobbying breaks spending record in 2019 at $100M

Daniel J. Munoz//March 10, 2020

NJ lobbying breaks spending record in 2019 at $100M

Daniel J. Munoz//March 10, 2020

Special interests and lobbying groups shelled out $100 million last year in an effort to sway elected officials and policymakers, according to the state’s election watchdog.

The top three spenders in 2019 were the New Jersey Education Association, New Direction NJ and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, according to the yearly report published Monday by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

The NJEA, the state’s largest and most powerful teacher’s union, spent $6.24 million. New Direction NJ, a 501(c)4 which received millions in donations from the NJEA and campaigns in support of Gov. Phil Murphy’s policy agenda, spent $3.91 million. Meanwhile, Horizon, the state’s largest health insurer, spent $1.47 million in 2019, followed closely by Move Health Care Forward NJ Inc., a newly formed political action committee that was financed by Horizon, and spent nearly $850,000.

A public campaign to repeal Jersey City’s Airbnb ordinances cost both sides a combined $5.5 million and wound up being one of the most expensive elections in state history.

“After four years during which annual lobbying outlays hovered around $91 million, industry spending now has hit a new, all-time milestone,” NJELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle said in the March 9 analysis. “Spike in grassroots lobbying and the number of new clients appear to be key factors.”

Growing like a weed

Lobbyists spent a record $1.9 million in 2019 to campaign on marijuana legalization—half a million dollars more than 2018, according to the report.

Those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and the question has since been bounced to voters for the presidential election this November.

“Given the big numbers from other states and the fact that the creation of a lucrative new industry hangs in the balance, it isn’t inconceivable that the fall ballot contest could cost upwards of $10 million,” Brindle said.

Acreage Holdings, the cannabis giant looking to buy out Compassionate Care Foundation, an Egg Harbor Township dispensary, spent $245,000 last year. Mainline Investment Partners, the Philadelphia-area investment firm that has financed the permitting and start-up for dispensaries across the country, spent $120,000.

The San Francisco area cannabis delivery company Eaze Solutions Inc. spent $99,225 in 2019, while medicinal marijuana company Holistic Industries spent $96,276.

“The New Jersey advertising market is expensive. So, when controversial issues like marijuana get on the ballot, the paid media bills can quickly add up” Brindle added.

New directions

The NJEA, which represents more than 200,000 teachers and school employees, lobbied on 350 different bills, including those related to school funding, pension and health benefits. The state’s top lawmakers are eyeing how to cut both school employee retirements and health benefits in a bid to save billions of dollars in expenses.

The organization sunk $4.5 million into New Direction NJ, with many of the state’s labor unions contributing as well.

“NJEA members are committed [to] keeping New Jersey’s public schools the best in the nation. We are committed to fighting for more resources for our students, economic stability for educators and job justice for Educational Support Professionals,” Steven Baker, a spokesperson for the union, said in a statement to NJBIZ.

Murphy’s former campaign manager Brendan Gill operates the nonprofit New Direction NJ, which spent at least $1 million last year on TV ads touting policy achievements of the governor.

“New Direction NJ is proud to have advocated for common-sense policy initiatives designed to support the middle class,” Philip Swibinski, a spokesperson for New Direction NJ, said in a statement to NJBIZ. “From making sure millionaires pay their fair share in taxes, to increasing funding for public schools and public transit, to providing more real property tax relief, this agenda will make New Jersey stronger and fairer for all residents.”

On the horizon

Much of Horizon’s campaign spending centered on a bill that would change the insurer’s corporate structure to expand its business portfolio, and ultimately lessen the taxes it pays to the state.

The Murphy administration, which rarely comments publicly on pending legislation, threw its weight in opposition to the measure which ultimately fizzled out during the lame duck voting session.

“The increased spending reflects the work Horizon is doing to help ensure that policymakers, stakeholders and the public understand the legislation and why it is critical to the future of health care in New Jersey,” Horizon Director of Public Affairs Thomas Wilson told NJBIZ.