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New Jersey Pay-To-Play: GOP Lawmaker Plans Bill To Limit Union Donations

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has long been at war with his state's public employee unions.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has long been at war with his state's public employee unions.

A close legislative ally of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is planning to introduce a bill that would curtail the political power of unions in the state and cost campaign funds for Democrats.

Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield), minority leader in the New Jersey Senate, will offer legislation to expand the state's pay-to-play ban to include labor unions, specifically those negotiating contracts with state and local government entities, including school boards. Kean said he is seeking to close what he called the biggest loophole in New Jersey's pay-to-play law, which imposes strict limits on how much businesses seeking government contracts can donate to political candidates in the state.

"In my opinion, labor unions are no different than lawyers or consultants. They negotiate contracts and fees with elected officials," Kean told The Huffington Post. "This would make pay-to-play more complete."

Kean said that local governments spend close to 50 percent of their budgets on salaries, which are mostly negotiated with local unions.

Gov. Christie first issued an executive order barring political donations by public employee unions to state and local candidates when he took office in 2010, only to have the order struck down by a state court on the ground that the governor could not add to the already existing statute. Because Christie could not act on his own, Kean said he was bringing the matter to the Legislature.

Under his bill, Kean said, unions would be limited to upwards of $300 in donations to any candidate seeking an office that could have influence over the union's contract. The bill would cover virtually every elected official in the state. According to the Newark-based Star-Ledger , unions that did not comply could face steep fines, including up to 15 percent of members' dues for a third offense.

A study by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission shows that in 2009, the year of the last gubernatorial election, unions donated more than $24 million to candidates for governor and the state Assembly. Commission officials said Democrats took in roughly two-thirds of that haul.

Christie -- who got his political start campaigning for Kean's father, then-Gov. Tom Kean (R) -- has long been at war with the state's public employee unions, arising from his promotion of legislation to overhaul the state's pension and health benefits system, along with proposals relating to teacher tenure and massive cuts in 2010 to local education aid.

Kean did not directly answer HuffPost's questions on whether the intent of the legislation is to give Republicans a campaign advantage going into 2013, when the New Jersey governorship and entire Legislature will be on the ballot.

"Within months of my taking office in 2001, I introduced the first pay-to-play ban ever in the Assembly," Kean said. "This bill builds on that premise."

Indeed, Kean, who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006, has been pushing the issue for the past 11 years with varied success. The state's first pay-to-play ban was enacted in 2004; it was amended in 2005 and 2008.

Alicia D'Alessandro, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Democratic Party, declined to comment on Kean's proposal. A spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford), who is also a labor leader, said that Sweeney did not have any comment on Kean's proposal but is working on several pay-to-play proposals of his own.

A spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, long a Christie adversary, said the group is opposing the proposal.

"We are opposing this blatant attempt to silence the voices of our members and other public employees in New Jersey," spokesman Steve Baker said. "This is an attempt by the governor to silence their voices. I am sure the governor would love a world where corporations can spend unlimited sums to influence the public, while teachers, police officers and firefighters have their voices silenced. That is not America."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, no similar legislative proposal on union pay-to-play has been raised in any other state.

Although Kean noted he has not discussed the bill's chances in the Democratic-controlled Legislature with Sweeney, he said, "I'm always optimistic."

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