The Star-Ledger

Lobbyists Give N.J. Lawmakers Fewer Freebies

The Star-Ledger — Wednesday, March 12, 2008

BY JOE DONOHUE AND DUNSTAN McNICHOL
Star-Ledger Staff

Lobbyists last year shelled out more than $53 million trying to sway lawmakers and state officials in Trenton, but the amount they spent on wining and dining those in power plunged to its lowest level in at least 15 years.

New annual state lobbying reports released yesterday show the business of lobbying – launching public campaigns for legislation, buttonholing lawmakers, making a special interest's case before regulators – remains healthy. The $53.5 million spent last year is just slightly less than the record $55.3 million in 2006.

But the freebies that lobbyists once regularly showered on officials – trips, dinners, tickets to plays and ball games – have slowed to a trickle because of tighter restrictions fueled by public outrage.

Last year, only $31,666 was given to state officials – down from $45,508 in 2006. And accounting for how much officials reimbursed special interests, last year's total drops to $23,621. That's in sharp contrast to just six years earlier, when one lawmaker – then-Assembly Speaker Jack Collins – got $15,207 in gifts as lobbyists handed out a record $115,442 in freebies.

Veteran lobbyist Bradley Brewster of Princeton Public Affairs Group said public sentiment has prompted lawmakers to almost universally decline any meals or other benefits from lobbyists.

"The practice has changed," he said. "Legislators clearly take that seriously, and if they find themselves in a situation, they're paying for it."

The reports show Carl Goldberg, chairman of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, received the most gifts: $2,942. However, he personally repaid all of them, including $2,792 reimbursed to International Speedway Corp. for two trips to Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. Executives from NASCAR and International Speedway, the sport's biggest track builder, have held discussions with Goldberg about locating near the Meadowlands Sports Complex.

John Samerjan, an authority spokesman, said Goldberg traveled to Florida twice last year to observe NASCAR races first-hand.

"He wanted to go see it and he did go," said Samerjan, adding that it was "logistically easier" for International Speedway to arrange the trips and then be repaid by Goldberg. "He was just trying to educate himself a little bit about it. It wasn't a gift."

In the Legislature, the biggest recipient of freebies was Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Middlesex). He reported accepting nine meals or other handouts worth $1,252, including $125 for his wife, Dayci, to attend an event at the expense of AT&T.

Chivukula did reimburse the New Jersey Utilities Association $125.73 for an event at the Marriott Seaview Country Club in Galloway Township. Chivukula chairs the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee; $967 of the benefits came from the utilities industry.

The six-year lawmaker said the gifts exert no influence.

"All the legislation, all the hearings I've held are open," said Chivukula. "All the supporters and opponents have equal opportunity to speak on the legislation. No legislation has been rushed through."

Ev Liebman of New Jersey Citizen Action, a public interest coalition, called for a complete end to gift-giving by special interests. "We should just ban them outright," she said.

The $53.5 million total tab for lobbying is nearly double what it was two years ago largely because new mandates forced lobbyists to report more, including efforts to secure state contracts and permits.

"I think the public is now the beneficiary of more information about lobbying than ever before," said Frederick Herrmann, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission, which made the annual reports available.

Brewster said lobbying receipts dropped a bit from the previous year in part because the major legislative issues tended to be broad philosophical matters like repealing the death penalty as opposed to big money matters that affect industries.

Among special interests, AARP led the pack, spending $1.19 million.

Of the lobbying firms that represent special interests, the Health Care Institute of New Jersey ranked in the top 10 for the first time, reporting more than $2 million in receipts from pharmaceutical firms like Bristol Myers and Johnson & Johnson. However, it reported spending just $166,191 on lobbying.

Spokeswoman Hollie Gilroy said her organization is more of a trade group than a lobbying outfit. "A very small part of that is lobbying expense," she said. "We put on health events. We have overhead."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Summaries from lobbying reports are available at: www.elec.state.nj.us/publicinformation/gaa_annual.htm.

Copyright 2008 The Star-Ledger

Top Top | NJCA in the News | NJCA Homepage