NorthJersey.com

Special Interests' Shower Of Campaign Cash Bolsters Their Power To Win

NorthJersey.com — Sunday, August 8, 2004

By HERB JACKSON and BENJAMIN LESSER
STAFF WRITERS

First of 7 parts (links to all parts of this series in sidebar to right)

UNDER THE INFLUENCE: MONEY IN TRENTON

PART ONE:
Sunday, August 8, 2004

A record $56 million flowed to the winners in last year's legislative elections, much of it from interest groups trying to influence state policy. And the pressure to give keeps growing.

PART TWO:
Monday, August 9, 2004

Can't win in court? Get the law changed. That's a strategy that appears to be working for one millionaire who opened his checkbook to legislative candidates after losing a family dispute.

PART THREE:
Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Record found that three legislators took more in donations than they were legally allowed to receive from one businessman, but they gave the money back and under the law will likely face no punishment.

PART FOUR:
Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Doctors ramped up their contributions last year as they battled to limit their exposure to big malpractice judgments in court. But lawyers also gave big, and won in the end.

PART FIVE (A) | PART FIVE (B):
Thursday, August 12, 2004

One of the most reliable sources of campaign cash for politicians is other politicians. Money from politicians is used to enforce party discipline or help ambitious candidates make new friends.

PART SIX:
Sunday, August 15, 2004

Who were the top 10 donors to each North Jersey legislator? And who gave the most to the Senate and Assembly Democratic and Republican PACs?

PART SEVEN:
Monday, August 16, 2004

Campaign finance reforms touted by legislative leaders this year will affect only a fraction of contributors, and even they may be able to keep giving money and getting contracts.


THE STAFF

  • Herb Jackson, 42, has covered New Jersey government and politics or directed coverage as an editor for 15 of the past 20 years. A Hudson County native and Rutgers University graduate, he has worked in the Trenton bureau of The Record since 1998. Since February 2002, he has taken readers behind the scenes in Trenton with his column, "Capital Games."
  • Benjamin Lesser, 28, has worked on computer-assisted projects since coming to The Record in November 2000 from The Times Union of Albany, N.Y. While attending the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he worked for the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. He has also taught classes at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
  • Editors: Deirdre Sykes, Charles Stile
  • Copy editors: Mike Kozma, Nancy Cherry
  • Graphics editor: Jerry Luciani
  • Designer: Robert Townsend
  • Graphic artist: Bob Rebach
  • Photographer: Chris Pedota
  • Plumbers, electricians, and carpenters unions gave a cool $1.8 million to legislative candidates elected in 2003, just a year after organized labor received a virtual monopoly over the state's multibillion-dollar school construction program.

    Real estate and construction companies donated $9.3 million while they prodded lawmakers to ditch proposed limits on suburban sprawl and extend the program that funds more than $1 billion in transportation projects each year.

    And as legislators worked to mandate stricter "California car" emission standards, auto dealers doubled their contributions to more than $438,000.

    Overall, last year's election for 120 seats in the Legislature was the most expensive in New Jersey history, with almost $56 million going to the winning candidates alone. And much of that money came from groups with a financial stake in legislation – groups that were trying to win special treatment on legislation, reward friends for past favors, or bottle up or water down initiatives that would hurt them.

    For some, the stakes were massive. The state's largest teachers union, which gave at least $411,000 and wields enormous clout through an effective political organization, got the word "less" changed to "greater" this summer in a spending cap bill. The change will likely allow school districts to spend tens of millions of dollars more for teachers' salaries in coming years than they would have otherwise been allowed to spend.

    To determine which donors gave the most to the current Legislature, The Record analyzed more than 33,000 contributions made in 2002 and 2003 to last year's winning candidates and to the major PACs that supported them.

    The Record also reviewed recent legislative history and conducted dozens of interviews to ascertain what donors got for their money, the role contributions play in making New Jersey's laws, and the state of campaign contribution laws. The analysis found:

  • Seven of the top 10 donors were labor unions representing public employees or building trades. Those seven unions' contributions totaled nearly $4 million, and organized labor overall gave $5.6 million to legislators on both sides of the political aisle. Both parties have shown they will eagerly vote for union initiatives, even if they ultimately cost taxpayers more money.
  • Big donors often win concessions or consolation prizes even when they have been trumped on some high-profile bills by grass-roots pressure or public opinion. For example, developers and construction companies – which, combined, gave more than any other industry – could not block passage in June of a law preserving a vast portion of the Highlands in northwestern New Jersey. But the following week, the Legislature voted to accelerate consideration of projects in "smart growth" areas for deep-pockets developers who could pay higher fees.
  • It can be costly to bet big on one party if that party loses, especially if opposing interests are also spreading money around. This was demonstrated in the battle over medical malpractice reform, when the Medical Society of New Jersey's PAC threw most of its money behind Republican candidates and the trial lawyers' PAC backed Democrats. After Democrats seized outright control of the State House on Election Day, both houses passed a version of malpractice reform that doctors had condemned as inadequate a year earlier.
  • During hectic end-of-session marathons when lawmakers may pass as many as 100 bills a day, contributors can often gain all kinds of smaller favors. Funeral directors, for example, gave more than $180,000 through their PAC in the 2003 election and last month won passage of a bill exempting them from a requirement that limousine drivers have commercial driver's licenses.
  • Enforcement of New Jersey's campaign finance laws is scattered at best, and data available to the public can be so error-riddled that its value is questionable. One potential reason: Legislators control the enforcement agency's budget.
  • Decade-old contribution limits do little to reduce the influence of well-funded special interests, and may actually make identifying donors more difficult. That's because millions of dollars flow through state and county committees, which can legally accept 10 to 15 times as much as candidates and then pass along unlimited amounts to those candidates. Senate President Richard Codey called this "legalized money laundering" when Republicans began to do it during the Nineties, but now Codey manages the state's third-wealthiest PAC.
  • As campaign spending has mushroomed, so too has the pressure to contribute. One lobbyist said it has reached the point of "legalized extortion," and another said he's afraid not to give. But a third said complaining about contributions is like complaining about the weather; there's nothing you can do about it.
  • Despite all the attention given this year to efforts to ban "pay to play" – the practice of lucrative state contracts going to major contributors – reform laws enacted in June would affect only a small group of donors. Even if a stricter law sought by reformers had been approved, most of the biggest donors would have been unaffected because they don't get government contracts.

    Some say the failure of the latest round of reforms to reduce the amount of money in campaigns is no accident.

    "Fund raising and the needs of campaigns are driving the state's policy," said former Assemblyman Matt Ahearn of Fair Lawn, whose one term in the Legislature featured a highly public exit from the Democrats to the Green Party in 2003. "That was the preeminent thing, and any discussion of what you took the job of legislator to do was not tolerated. You were rocking the boat or disrupting the caucus."

    Money's role

    Legislative leaders, whose broad powers include deciding which bills the Senate and Assembly may vote on, argue that the only thing contributors get for their money is a sympathetic ear.

    "I don't know of anybody who's going to let themselves be bought. That's pretty demeaning," said Codey, D-Essex. "If you give me a contribution, you get a thank-you. That's it."

    Codey said he will meet with groups he knows are traditionally big contributors, but he insists their money does not influence whether he agrees with their views. Rather, he said, he will tell the interest groups what his position is, and let them decide afterward whether to contribute.

    "Some of them might say, 'Codey doesn't agree with us on these issues, but maybe down the road there'll be another issue where he might,' so they give a contribution because they want to have an entree, to build a rapport."

    Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, D-West New York, and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts, D-Camden, argued their record of approving bills that special interests opposed proves that money does not hold sway in Trenton.

    "We reined in telemarketers and predatory lenders, and dealt with requiring childproof handguns and clean-car legislation. The moneyed interests, if you will, were all on the other side of those issues," Roberts said.

    Lobbyist John Torok, whose clients include the state's optometrist association, which ranked 18th highest among all donors, said the most that contributions will get is a legislator's attention.

    "It's not as simple as saying if I [raise] $100,000, somebody will do this bill for me," Torok said. "I wish it were that simple."

    But others say money gets more than lobbyists and leaders admit to.

    "I don't think every special interest gets what it wants, but most of the time you have corporations fighting other corporations," said Staci Berger, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, which fought for campaign finance reform this year and whose directors include labor unions, tenants organizations, and community groups.

    "What it buys you is the ability to have your idea floated in the first place, or the ability to stop things from happening," Berger said.

    That assessment was essentially confirmed by Donald DiFrancesco, a Republican who was Senate president for 10 years and acting governor in 2001.

    "The money's a psychological thing," said DiFrancesco, who left office in 2002. "In the back of your mind, you know that if somebody's maxed out [given the maximum donation], you are going to defer to them in certain areas. But when it comes to policy, if the polling's against them, there's no way these organizations and their money can overrule public opinion."

    'Money never loses'

    But much of what the Legislature does never rises to the public's attention, especially behind-the-scenes haggling over the fine print of complicated laws. In these settings, critics of the system say, legislators will try to find ways to maintain the appearance that they are doing what the public wants while also crafting consolation prizes for well-funded interests.

    "The money never loses," said Ahearn. "Sometimes it doesn't win, but it never loses."

    Consider these examples from the last year:

  • The Laborers Union was the largest single contributor to the 2003 election, with locals and PACs accounting for more than $750,000. Afterward, the union aggressively supported an increase in the state's gas tax because transportation officials said it was needed to continue funding the $1.2 billion the state spends annually on highway and transit projects. Also lined up behind the tax were construction companies, engineering firms, and trade associations, which, combined, gave $1.5 million. But Republicans took a party-line position against the increase and effectively killed it.

    Still, the donors did not lose out completely. After abandoning the gas tax, the McGreevey administration announced a complicated and unprecedented plan to borrow money against the promise of future federal funds so that the $1.2 billion in annual projects could continue.

  • Passage of a bill to preserve the Highlands, a swath of pristine land that protects half the state's drinking water, was a blow to real estate developers and construction companies - the biggest sector of donors, who, combined, contribute about 25 cents out of every campaign dollar. But a week later, a second bill that was a boon to big-time developers sailed through: If you pay steeper fees, the state will speed up consideration of environmental permits for projects outside the Highlands.

    The developers who can afford those higher fees are likely the same ones who can afford large campaign contributions.

  • The auto dealers' PAC ranked ninth among all donors with contributions of more than $438,000 while they were trying to kill a bill mandating stricter "California car" emissions standards. They lost the battle to environmentalists' pressure, but may still win the war: The final draft of the bill added a study committee that could recommend scrapping the standards just 18 months after they take effect. The committee can also recommend public subsidies to car dealers if low-emission vehicles don't sell.

    "I don't know at end of the day whether it is a bill with teeth in it or not," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer.

    'An unspoken law'

    Veterans of legislative wars say that as campaign spending has mushroomed, the demand for contributions has gotten more intense - and solicitations are inching closer and closer to the line between the legitimate and the illegal.

    "There's never any [threat], 'If you don't do this, we'll do this.' But it's definitely an unspoken law down here these days that you have to contribute if you want to accomplish things," said one lobbyist, who asked for anonymity to protect his job and his clients.

    "It's almost like an insurance policy. There's this sense that if the day comes that you do need help, you might not be able to get it if you don't contribute."

    Secaucus lobbyist Alan Marcus said it is not unusual for a legislator to refer businesses or interest groups to specific lobbyists, and then expect the lobbyists to organize fund-raisers for the legislator. Lawmakers will also drop not-too-subtle hints about why donations would be in a lobbyist's best interests.

    Marcus described a call he received this year from a freshman Democrat who had been in office just a few months.

    "He asked me to take part in his upcoming fund-raiser, and when I asked him, 'Why should I contribute? I don't even know you,' he started naming clients he figured would probably be appearing before committees on which he would be serving," said Marcus, a Republican who was once executive director of the Assembly staff. "When I told him he was being pretty blatant and someone might take what he said the wrong way, he started backing off."

    "I've found that fund raising has become legalized extortion," said Marcus, who said he couldn't remember the legislator's name.

    Told of Marcus' experience, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said the legislator probably stopped short of committing a crime.

    "I couldn't tell you off the bat if it was illegal, but I know it was wrong," Christie said. "In a larger sense, it displays the atmosphere in which we are operating. ... Going so close to the line sometimes leads people to cross the line."

    Christie explained that it is illegal to demand a contribution in exchange for an official action, or to threaten to take or withhold such an action if a contribution is not received. It is also illegal for a contributor to give money with the expectation that an official action will be taken in exchange for the money. But he said proving such cases often requires one participant in the scheme to be cooperating and possibly wearing a secret recording device.

    Legislative leaders denied that the solicitation Marcus described was common for legislators. Codey, the Senate president, questioned whether the story was true because Marcus did not identify the caller. Marcus named several legislators he thought it might have been, but said he didn't write down the caller's name.

    Sires, the Assembly speaker, said lobbyists complained about having to make campaign contributions when Republicans were in power as much as they complain now. Roberts, the majority leader, said some lobbyists might lose a battle on the merits and then tell a client it was because of money given by the other side.

    Other lobbyists said that while legislators are asking for more money these days – $500- and $1,000-a-plate fund-raisers are more common, whereas just a few years ago they were the sign of a veteran legislator with clout – the process of solicitation and the pressure to give is the same as it has ever been.

    "I don't feel any more pressured to give than a carpenter feels pressured to hammer a nail. It's one of the tools and skills you use to do your job," said James Appleton, president of the Coalition of Auto Retailers. "The Legislature's looking for support, and we want to see good legislation enacted. I tell my members it's not just an option, it's your responsibility as an active member in the business community to participate in democracy."

    Labor clout

    Tracking campaign contributions can be like determining whether the chicken or the egg came first. Contributors say they're not buying favors, they're rewarding past support. And legislators say they're not being bought, they're doing what's right for their constituents: It's just a happy coincidence if contributors also want the same thing.

    But among the hundreds of bills passed each year, there are always some that provide specific benefits to specific groups, and more often than not those groups are labor unions that are also major campaign contributors.

    "When you talk about special interest legislation, the unions stick out like a sore thumb," said Assemblyman Richard Merkt, R-Morris. "They are omnipresent and omnipotent in Trenton and control a huge amount of what goes on there."

    Overall, labor gave at least $5.6 million to winning candidates and top committees last year, with unions representing laborers, plumbers, electrical workers, state workers, carpenters, police, and teachers all ranking in the top 10 of contributors.

    Both parties have a history of supporting laws sought by unions – even if they end up costing taxpayers more – because of unions' financial resources and their ability to provide volunteers and votes on Election Day.

    Republicans hoped – in vain, it turned out – that union support would help them retain control of the Legislature in 2001 when they boosted monthly pension payments by 9 percent for 475,000 current and retired public employees. The bill passed with minimal debate and almost no dissent, at a cost of $5.2 billion to taxpayers over time.

    A Treasury Department analysis said there were enough assets in the pension system to pay for the pension increase, but that analysis was based on top-of-the-bubble 2000 stock prices. Since the stock market fell a year later, the state has not been able to keep up payments into the pension system.

    "If I looked on unions as a cash cow, then shame on me," said Assemblyman Joseph Malone, R-Burlington, who received about 29 percent of his reported contributions in 2003 from labor. "But I do what's right based on my own impressions and experience, and based on what I think my constituents are interested in. And if it offends people in my party, so be it."

    Malone said his support for unions comes from his experience with apprenticeship programs at the county college where he works.

    "By and large, union-trained guys tend to perform better overall than non-union guys," Malone said.

    Democratic leaders say they support unions because they are a core constituency, not because they are financial backers.

    "It's what we grew up with, supporting unions," said Sires, the Assembly speaker.

    Building-trade unions' biggest triumphs lately have come through expansion and tougher enforcement of "prevailing wage" laws, which require all contractors who get public contracts to pay wages equal to what unionized contractors pay organized labor. Unions support these laws because they take away any incentive for contractors to spurn union labor.

    A bill passed during the final lame-duck week of the 2002-03 session unveiled criminal penalties for prevailing wage violations, and two bills passed during a marathon budget session in June expanded the wage law's scope.

    Codey dismissed arguments that taxpayers are unfairly burdened by such laws, which critics say essentially require the use of union labor on public construction work.

    "When you use union people, you get the job done quicker, and that worker is more likely to have health benefits," Codey said. "Somebody who doesn't [have benefits], if they end up in the hospital, we as a society end up paying their bills."

    Unions have given their friends more than just cash. The president of the state AFL-CIO, Charles Wowkanech, was a surrogate speaker for Governor McGreevey at labor gatherings during the governor's 2001 campaign and organized a massive get-out-the-vote effort. And when Democrats were battling business groups over a $1 billion increase in corporate taxes in 2002, the largest union of state employees, the Communications Workers of America, ran radio commercials supporting the tax hike.

    "Here in New Jersey, I think organized labor is one of the largest strategic partners with the Democratic Party," Wowkanech told a delegate breakfast at the Democratic National Convention last month. "The more members we take in, chances are the more people you'll have and we're going to grow bigger and stronger together."

    Unions also have been working for years to encourage members to run for office, while urging other members to vote for them.

    The current chairmen of the Assembly and Senate labor committees, Assemblyman Joseph Egan, D-Middlesex, and Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, are both officials of construction union locals. Senate State Government Committee Chairman Joseph Coniglio, D-Paramus, is a past president and finance chairman of a Lodi plumbers local.

    Egan, the business manager of a North Brunswick electrical workers local who got $157,000 from electrical workers unions last year, was sworn in to his first term in 2002. That same year, he sponsored a bill that business groups called a massive giveaway to construction unions. It effectively required all public buildings to be built with union labor, critics said.

    The timing was especially significant because a 10-year, $6 billion school construction program had recently begun.

    Egan said the bill, authorizing what are known as "project labor agreements," or PLAs, simply put more force behind prevailing wage laws.

    "If the prevailing wage is to be paid whether you use a union contractor or not, it shouldn't matter. The only way PLAs matter is if the contractor wants to cheat," he said.

    Sweeney and Egan followed up this year with two more bills sought by unions, both of which passed overwhelmingly during the marathon session that began the afternoon of June 24 and ended early on the morning of June 25.

    One bill applied prevailing wage requirements to projects funded by state authorities – even if they're built for private hospitals or universities. The other said that if prefabricated plumbing or duct work is used in a public building, the prefabrication work must have been done by workers getting the prevailing wage.

    Both bills received no public attention, but were sought by unions to protect jobs.

    "Say you're building a jail, and you get a prefabricated cubicle cell that's got a sink and toilet already built in somewhere off-site, you could have somebody making minimum wage making that. My contractor can't compete with that," said Michael Maloney of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 9 in Englishtown, which accounted for about half of the $660,000 given by plumbers unions in the 2003 race.

    Maloney argued that the bills were simply good policy and not the result of campaign contributions.

    "We're not buying anything. If anything, we're protecting the taxpayers of the state by ensuring the work will happen in New Jersey, and the people who do the work will pay taxes in New Jersey, not to Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, or Delaware," he said.

    Critics such as Merkt say the bill will drive up the cost of state and local construction projects, which ultimately is borne by taxpayers. But some legislators rationalize that voters will not likely identify those costs, while unions could retaliate for a vote against the bill by putting money behind an opponent in the next election, Merkt said.

    "If you talk to some members of the Legislature, they would tell you privately the right thing to do would be to vote against a prevailing wage bill, but publicly they can't risk being seen doing that," said Merkt, who comes from a safe Republican district and voted against the prefab bill.

    "I have no problem with helping working people, but the problem here is the purpose of government is to purchase goods and services on the most economical basis, not to grant political favors to any group," he said.

    Some government reformers such as Harry Pozycki, state chairman of Common Cause, warn that as the need to raise contributions continues to grow, the need to provide more and more favors also grows.

    "We have a saying in reform circles," he said, "that you shouldn't be surprised if representatives financed by private interests respond to private interests when they get in office."

    LAWYERS:

    There are plenty of reasons why lawyers and law firms put roughly $4 million behind winning legislative candidates and committees in 2003.

    Some do extensive work as government bond counsels or municipal attorneys, and figure prominently on any list of payers in the game of "pay to play." Some specialize in accident and malpractice suits and want to protect plaintiffs' rights to sue.

    But other law firms are built around representing government agencies themselves, and they are major contributors to officials who have the power to hire them.

    Topping the list of such contributors in 2003 was more than $400,000 from Marlton-based Parker, McCay & Criscuolo. Its chief executive officer, Philip A. Norcross, is the brother of George Norcross, a South Jersey Democratic power broker, and of Donald Norcross, head of the South Jersey AFL-CIO.

    Coming in second was the $330,000 given by the Teaneck-based firm headed by brothers Al DeCotiis, a member of the Democratic National Committee, and M. Robert DeCotiis, who was chief counsel to former Gov. Jim Florio. Bob DeCotiis' son, Michael DeCotiis, is chief counsel to Governor McGreevey.

    The firm of Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero, Secaucus-based Scarinci & Hollenbeck, donated about $65,000. The firm of Burlington County Republican Chairman Glenn Paulsen, Mount Laurel-based Capehart & Scatchard, gave $66,000.

    A bill designed to limit "pay to play," enacted in June, will curtail some of these firms' contributions. The bill's general premise was to block no-bid contracts for businesses that gave more than $17,500 to officials with the power to award the contracts. And state laws allow the hiring of professionals such as lawyers, engineers, and accountants without bidding.

    But that doesn't mean all law firm contributions will be barred by the "pay-to-play" ban. That's because many of those contributions come primarily from individual lawyers and their spouses – not the firms themselves – and unless a lawyer controls more than 10 percent of the firm's profits, his or her donations still are permitted.

    Another group of donors within the legal profession are those with extensive lobbying operations. Roseland-based Lowenstein Sandler, which has an affiliated lobbying firm called Issues Management – with more than $2 million in billings last year – gave nearly $270,000 in the 2003 election. Morristown-based Riker Danzig, which had $1.3 million in lobbying receipts last year, contributed $186,400.

    Mary Kathryn Roberts, a Riker Danzig attorney and lobbyist, helped teach a seminar on lobbying sponsored by the state bar association in December 2002. According to a text of her remarks, attendees were warned to remember that the legal profession has a written ethics code while lobbying does not.

    She also noted that "after becoming involved in lobbying, you will come to recognize the level to which political fund-raisers are part of the role of maintaining important government and political relationships."

    BILLBOARD TAXES

    Governor McGreevey raised more than state revenues when he signed a bill that was expected to increase fees on billboard companies by $24 million. He also raised campaign contributions – for the opposing Republican Party.

    Nine billboard companies contributed $170,000 to winning candidates in the 2003 election, and 84 percent of that went to Republicans, who had attacked the fees as an unfair attempt to get political cover at the expense of a legitimate industry.

    When McGreevey proposed the increase in early 2003, he'd just replaced his first chief of staff, Gary Taffet, and chief counsel, Paul Levinsohn, because of harsh news coverage of the lucrative deals in the billboard industry the two had made just before joining his administration.

    Though two Republicans ultimately provided votes in the evenly divided Senate to pass the tax, many others called it outrageous – especially after an outgoing state official said it would never raise the expected $24 million because the entire billboard industry only generated about $70 million in revenue.

    The tax ended up raising about $10 million.

    But it also raised a lot of campaign cash.

    Topping the list of recipients was $87,000 contributed to the Senate Republican Majority committee, which turns out to have been a bad investment. Despite the committee's name, Senate Republicans fell three seats short of gaining a majority as Democrats captured 22 of the 40 Senate seats in November.

    An additional $20,000 was contributed to the Republican State Committee; $9,200 to Paul DiGaetano, then Assembly minority leader; and $8,250 to the Assembly Republican Majority PAC he controlled last year.

    Perhaps it's coincidence, or perhaps Democrats noticed all the money bet on them losing power. Either way, with this year's budget the Legislature renewed the higher billboard fees, which would have expired July 1.

    On top of that, it repealed a law that had exempted many billboards from local property taxes.

    LIQUOR TAXES

    At least 24 brewers, distillers, bars, liquor importers, and distributors gave a total of more than $422,000 to last year's legislative winners. Leading the pack was distributor Allied Beverage Group, at $155,000, and Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch, at $112,000.

    Former Assemblyman Matthew Ahearn of Fair Lawn thinks there's a connection between those contributions and the fact that liquor taxes were not increased this year – even though other "sin" taxes on cigarettes and casinos were.

    Also playing a role, he argues, is the number of former bar and restaurant owners in the Legislature, including Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts; Democratic State Committee Vice Chairman and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan; Assembly Republican Conference Leader Guy Gregg; and former Assembly Minority Leader Paul DiGaetano.

    Ahearn, whose disagreements with Democratic leaders led him to switch to the Green Party last year, remembers asking during a closed Democratic caucus why a liquor tax increase was not on the table.

    After the caucus ended, he said, Roberts followed him out.

    "He said if I have questions about things like that I should bring them to him in person, not raise it in the caucus," said Ahearn, who lost his reelection bid in 2003. "Then he said he and Speaker [Albio] Sires wanted to sponsor a fund-raiser for me."

    Roberts flatly denied that happened and suggested Ahearn made it up.

    Party leaders say the main reason liquor taxes stayed put has nothing to do with campaign contributions. Rather, they say, more people drink than smoke, so such a tax would be more politically damaging.

    GAS TAX

    Voters might have been surprised after the 2003 election when a potentially massive increase in the state gas tax started to gain momentum in Trenton.

    It certainly wasn't discussed before the election – in public, that is.

    But companies and labor unions interested in guaranteeing that the state's Transportation Trust Fund got a new source of cash – so that it could continue to support $1.2 billion a year in projects – made sure their presence was known to Governor McGreevey and legislative candidates and committees during the campaign.

    Leading the charge were laborers unions, which were the No. 1 group of contributors overall in the election at nearly $765,000 in donations. Also on board were the heavy machinery and crane-controlling operating engineers, who gave $182,000.

    An additional $484,000 came from two top North Jersey highway contractors, Sanzari Cos. and J. Fletcher Creamer & Son. The Utility and Transportation Contractors Association gave more than $157,000 through its political action committee, Constructors for Good Government. Engineering, construction, asphalt, and quarry companies that belong to the UTCA gave $900,000.

    All told, that's more than $2.4 million from contributors hoping to see a gas tax increase, out of nearly $56 million given overall to candidates who would go on to win the election. The expectation was that the Legislature would take up the issue during its lame-duck session, when several outgoing members could provide votes and spare freshmen the potentially career-ending chore.

    But after Republicans lost several key races, the party's conservative wing was angry and looking for new leadership. And with some potential 2005 gubernatorial candidates seizing on the gas tax as a populist attention-getter, there was a party-line decision not to help the Democrats. The gas tax increase was shelved, and advocates now do not believe it will be back until after the 2005 election.

    Stay tuned for how much in contributions are generated for that race.

    SCHOOL SPENDING

    Children in elementary school learn the difference between those angled symbols that designate "less than" and "greater than."

    The Legislature got a refresher course in June, when it took up a bill sought by Governor McGreevey that put a 2.5 percent cap on school spending increases.

    The bill was opposed by the state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, which was also the 10th-highest contributor to winning candidates in the 2003 election with more than $411,000.

    During the 10 days it took for the bill to go from introduction to passage, the word "less" in several sections was changed to "greater." As a result, schools will be able to increase spending in the future by 2.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is greater, a difference that could let districts spend many millions more each year on teachers' raises.

    The NJEA is still unhappy about the bill, but one Assembly Democrat said party members were told in caucus that the union "was OK" with lawmakers voting for it because of the word change - and because of the promise of further "tweaks" to the cap later this year.

    MYSTERY DONOR

    As The Record attempted to identify donors who gave more than $20,000 for this analysis, one mystery was the toughest to track: A donor who had given 14 contributions totaling $24,500 to legislative candidates and the Democratic State Committee.

    The donor was identified alternately as "MAPAC," "MAPAC 2," "IMPAC," or "MOPAC 2."

    Its Washington post office box was listed on the reports, but no other information was provided. Calls confirmed that neither the Massachusetts Association of Problem Animal Controllers nor the Mid-Atlantic Personnel Assessment Consortium was giving campaign money to New Jersey legislators.

    Finally, a Google search on the five digits of the post office box number, 19089, scored a hit on a campaign finance watchdog group's Web site. The site posts searchable versions of tax returns filed by groups that give political contributions but are not required to register as political action committees with the Federal Election Commission.

    That document provided a full name for the group – the Mid-Atlantic Political Action Committee. A search of its tax return showed it was founded by officers of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in the mid-Atlantic states. The UFCW also has a Northeastern PAC in New York, which made nine contributions worth $20,000.

    Other branches of the UFCW, which represents supermarket workers, gave $131,000 to winning legislative candidates last year.

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