Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday struck an unusual, last-minute deal with top lawmakers to avoid something no New Jersey governor has suffered in 22 years: the state Legislature overruling one of his vetoes.
After a flurry of negotiations that packed the weekend and stretched into Monday morning, Murphy agreed to backtrack and sign an identical version of a so-called “dark money” bill he rejected last month.
In exchange, both houses the Democratic-controlled Legislature agreed to abandon plans to vote Monday to override the Democratic governor’s conditional veto of the measure, which would force more political organizations in the Garden State to disclose the donors who fund them.
Instead, the state Senate and Assembly voted to send Murphy what state Senate President Stephen Sweeney called a “word-for-word” copy of the original bill. And Murphy is expected to sign it swiftly, despite his sharp objection to parts of the measure just weeks ago.
Murphy’s office said the governor and lawmakers will also discuss future legislation to improve the bill in the coming weeks, though legislative leaders were reticent to say that’s a guarantee.
The unorthodox deal gives top lawmakers the bill that they wanted while at the same time sparing Murphy the embarrassment of being overruled.
An override is a political rarity in New Jersey that requires two-thirds of both the Senate and Assembly to pass. It would have been especially notable because Murphy’s party — the Democrats — control both chambers.
Garden State lawmakers hadn’t rejected a governor’s veto since 1997, when the then-Republican-controlled Legislature overturned Republican Gov. Christie Todd Whitman’s veto of an abortion bill.
Sweeney, the Senate president who often disagrees with Murphy, said lawmakers easily had the votes Monday to override Murphy. Republicans vowed to provide support.
But, Sweeney said, “there’s no reason to get into a fight, especially with the governor willing to sign the bill we put forward.”
“We came to an agreement. That’s a good thing,” Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said after the voting session at the Statehouse in Trenton.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said the battle was worth it because this is a bipartisan bill that deserves to become law.
“The notion of transparency when it comes to money in the political process is something we all ought to work toward,” Coughlin said.
Still, Murphy’s office insisted there’s another component of the deal: for lawmakers to craft “cleanup” legislation to address “freedom of speech” concerns — specifically that the current measure would make it harder for progressive grassroots groups to raise money.
Murphy spokesman Alyana Alfaro said the governor “looks forward to signing the legislation while working with the Legislature to resolve outstanding issues by the end of the month.”
Sweeney stressed that such changes were not part of Monday’s, arguing the bill is strong in its current form. He did not, however, rule out possible negotiations.
“If the governor has concerns, we can talk,” the lawmaker said. “But it has nothing to do with this bill.”
It’s possible Murphy could veto the measure or decline to sign it until he gets those changes. That, though, could revive talks of an override.
Coughlin, the Assembly speaker, said he’s confident Murphy will sign the legislation because “he’ committed to doing it.”
Coughlin also said it’s not uncommon for a bill “as big as this” to require some changes “in the future.”
“We’re always willing to do that,” he said.
This is the second time in recent months that Murphy cut a deal to avert an override attempt. Sweeney planned in April for the Senate to overrule Murphy’s veto of a bill to help low-income and disabled citizens in New Jersey from becoming homeless, but the two came to an agreement that resulted in Murphy signing a new measure.
It’s all part of the sometimes tense relationship between Murphy and the Legislature. The “dark money” drama comes comes as the governor and top lawmakers are locked in heated negotiations over the state budget, which is due at the end of the month — and could lead to the second state government shutdown in three years.
Sponsors say the “dark money” bill (S1500) aims to bring more transparency to the contributions that political groups get to help influence campaigns and policy in New Jersey.
The measure has been around for years, but it gained traction earlier this year because of Murphy and Sweeney’s ongoing feud.
Sweeney, the Senate president, lobbied for the legislation to put pressure on a pro-Murphy group, New Direction New Jersey, to disclose its donors after the organization broke its promise to reveal its backers. New Direction has run ads to support Murphy’s agenda during budget negotiations the last two years, angering Sweeney and Coughlin.
The state Senate passed the bill 33-0 and the Assembly 66-2 in March.
But Murphy conditionally vetoed it in May, suggesting changes that he said would close “egregious loopholes” and removing a provision that appeared to target his former campaign manager, Brendan Gill, who helps run New Direction.
The governor said the goal of bringing more transparency to political donations “must be carefully balanced against constitutionally protected speech and association rights” and that some parts of the bill would “may infringe on both.”
One complaint advocates had was that the measure would force progressive grassroots groups with not as much power as larger super PACs to disclose their donors.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, on Monda called for additional legislation to address those worries, to help protect groups like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.
Murphy also argued that the bill actually doesn’t apply to New Direction because it allows the pro-Murphy group to be exempt “merely by coordinating certain activities with a candidate.” The governor’s conditional veto suggested closing that loophole.
Still, top lawmakers praised the bill Monday as a way to shine light on the sometimes confusing pool of money that funds politics.
The Senate re-passed the measure 35-0 on Monday and the Assembly 68-0, with four abstentions.
“The people of New Jersey deserve to know the origin of the money used to influence our political process,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Mercer, a main sponsor.
Matt Arco may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewArco or Facebook.
Brent Johnson may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @johnsb01.
Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips
Get the latest updates right in your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com’s newsletters.