It often seems difficult to pick up a newspaper or listen to a newscast without hearing about some pay-to-play campaign scandal; the term itself seems to indicate that someone is doing something wrong. But as with most issues, pay-to-play isn’t black and white, says Paul Josephson, an attorney and an expert in campaign finance reform. What some people may view as an unethical practice, others see as an infringement on a person’s rights.

Josephson will be part of a panel on “Current Issues in Campaign Finance,” at the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Education (NJICLE) on Wednesday, May 7, at 6 p.m. at the Sheraton at Woodbridge Place in Iselin. Cost: $169. Reservations can be made online at www.NJICLE.com. Other members of the panel include Steven Sholk, Jon Carbone, John Gillespie, Rebecca Moll Freed, and John Rogers.

Josephson’s interest in government and campaign issues was one of his major reasons for choosing law as a career. “I’ve always been interested in politics and government. After all, government is the language of the law, the toolbox by which governments effect policy.” he says.

Josephson grew up in Essex County and attended the University of Michigan, where his interest in government led him to be elected student body president. He received his J.D. from George Washington University in 1990. His continuing interest in politics led him to work as campaign council for several candidates, including former governors Jim Florio and James McGreevey, as well as Governor Jon Corzine’s senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns.

He is with Hill Wallack at Carnegie Center, where he is partner-in-charge of the firm’s regulatory and government affairs practice group. Prior to joining that firm he served as assistant attorney general and director of the Division of Law within the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety.

What is pay-to-play?A hot issue in campaign reform right now, pay-to-play can be defined simply as the practice of giving campaign contributions to a candidate or political party in exchange for government contracts or influence with the government. It isn’t just an issue at the state level. In fact, almost every municipality in the state has its own version of pay-to-play laws, and that, according to Josephson is part of the problem. “There are over 100 entirely different versions of pay-to-play laws in New Jersey, and about 50 others that have slight variations. It is so complex that many people who could become involved and donate to a campaign just give up for fear of inadvertently violating the law.”

Who is restricted? Any business that has a contract, or multiple contracts, with the State of New Jersey totaling $17,500 or more is not allowed to contribute to a campaign in the state. In addition, any person who owns 10 percent or more of a company which holds a government contract of that amount is also not allowed to contribute. Casinos and their “senior employees” are also on the restricted list, and some groups are now seeking to add developers to the list of people who are restricted from contributing to campaigns.

Monetary contributions are not the only thing affected by the laws. It also essentially restricts businesses with government contracts or their owners in what they are allowed to do in regards to “campaigning for a candidate or soliciting contributions from friends,” says Josephson.

What are the implications? “I don’t believe that restricting contributions is a good idea,” says Josephson. “What the law essentially does is carve up the population into groups and identifies some of them as ‘good groups’ who are allowed to participate in the political process, and others that are ‘bad groups’ who are not.” The reality is that the people and organizations “most knowledgeable and most interested in good government are now restricted from becoming involved,” he says.

State laws restrict contributions to gubernatorial campaigns and to political parties, but not to candidates for the state legislature. “The reasoning was that, in theory, a governor can influence the awarding of a contract, but a legislator cannot,” explains Josephson.

What are the results? By restricting some of the groups who can contribute to a campaign, but not others, as well as only some government officials, pay-to-play has not made government more honest, it has instead, just changed which groups have the most influence. “The legislators now take the place of the state parties as the place where the money flows to,” he says.

In addition, because unions are allowed to make contributions, they now wield a much greater influence than in years past. “What has happened since pay-to-play is that the public employees’ unions now are much more powerful in Trenton. Businesses can’t contribute, developers won’t be able to contribute, some individuals can’t contribute. The unions are now the only large source of contributions,” he says.

Another result of the pay-to-play laws is that it is now more difficult for candidates at every level of government to raise the necessary money to run a campaign. The laws are so complicated that many people and businesses who used to give money regularly to political parties and campaigns no longer contribute at all. “The laws are too complicated, and people feel it is too easy to accidentally screw up so they just shut down and don’t contribute at all,” says Josephson.

But the reality is, he adds, that “unless you are running for office in a very tiny municipality it takes a lot of money to run even a local campaign. You can’t run for office in New Brunswick or Camden or Newark with just a few thousand dollars.” Campaign contributions are necessary.

Is there a better solution? Josephson is not against campaign finance reform, he just isn’t sure that the current pay-to-play laws are the best solution. “Carving up the groups who can and cannot contribute to a campaign is not the way to go,” he says, because there are two sides to every story.

For instance, many people see a redeveloper who wants to bring a shopping mall into a downtown area as a large and disinterested corporation out to close down the mom and pop businesses. Josephson looks at the other side. They are not allowed to contribute to political campaigns.

“The redeveloper can’t contribute to a political party or a campaign. But what about the owner of the cruddy grocery store in a downtown neighborhood who doesn’t want to improve his property or lower his prices and doesn’t want competition to come in? He is allowed to contribute. It’s a slippery slope when you start saying who can and can’t contribute to the political process.”

Josephson suggests that instead of restricting some groups from contributing at all to campaigns, a better solution is to allow everyone to contribute, but limit the dollar amount. “Restrict everyone to $500. That way the mayors and councilmen and the governor will have to go out and talk to a lot more people to finance their campaigns,” he says. “Now, that would be a good thing.”

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