- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - As state lawmakers scramble to complete New Jersey’s 2016 budget, residents are getting a glimpse of the more than 2,000 contacts made between registered lobbyists and state officials that are influencing the budget talks.

Those meetings and emails cover the 10 most heavily lobbied bills and touch on issues including paid sick time, out-of-network insurance costs and domestically made products.

The state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission recently released data showing which bills attracted the most attention from lobbyists, the first time it has done so. The data show how lobbyists earned a combined $53.8 million in 2014 and suggest that a range of issues - from complicated insurance reforms to mandating that companies allow workers to accrue paid sick time - drives the agenda in Trenton.

The data reviews only measures lobbied in 2014, but because work from last year’s legislative session carries into this year, many of the bills are still being considered.

And while the 2016 budget is at the top of the Legislature’s agenda as the June 30 deadline approaches, legions of lobbyists have been pushing other bills in the halls of the statehouse.

Here’s a look at the issue:

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THE BILLS

Measures establishing a paid sick leave requirement and setting up arbitration guidelines for disputes involving out-of-network health insurance payments were among the most heavily lobbied bill still under consideration. Among the others, two have been signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie. Those include a bill to help ex-convicts get work and another that allows hospital patients to designate a caregiver after entering the facility. Christie, a Republican who is considering running for president, vetoed a bill pushed by Democrats that would have required state contractors to prefer and use products made in America before using imported items.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, says lobbying includes a whole range of activity, from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to firms that have Fortune 500 clients, and that on balance, lobbying gives many people a voice where they otherwise wouldn’t have one.

Paid sick leave garnered so much attention in part because supporters of the measure have scored victories in Newark, Jersey City and Paterson. The business community is fighting against what Dworkin called the snowball effect of supporters’ municipality-by-municipality approach. “The way to nip that in the bud is to prevent that from happening in Trenton,” he said.

Legislation aimed at protecting residents from high fees from out-of-network medical professionals has garnered so much attention because the issue is so complex. “It takes a great deal of time to educate the public and lawmakers,” Dworkin said. “Any change will have ripple effects on other areas of health care.”

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THE PLAYERS

The most active lobbying groups include the State League of Municipalities, Jersey Nurses Economic Security Organization, the New Jersey Builders Association and the state Chamber of Commerce. The top groups are responsible for 36 percent of all lobbying activity, according to the ELEC report. “A handful of issues, bills or interests comprise the bulk of the lobbying activity,” said Kyle Morgan, who compiled the research in the report.

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THE CASH

Lobbyists are required to file reports quarterly and annually. While their annual reports show revenue from lobbying, the reports don’t connect the spending to particular issues. In 2014, roughly 130 firms and organizations reported receipts of almost $54 million from lobbying. But those receipts don’t reflect income made from other work - like political consulting or public relations - that many companies do and that also affect the fate of legislation.

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MURKY OUTCOMES

Lobbyists say they offer their clients a seat at the table when legislation or regulations are being written. They’re reluctant to guarantee outcomes.

Whether they succeed or fail for their clients or members, lobbying efforts might also bring an issue into sharper focus, Dworkin said.

“The most powerful lobby, the largest lobby will not always win the day,” he said. “Sometimes legislation can be very complicated and often the best intentions will have unexpected effects. You rely on lobbying efforts in order to explain this stuff.”

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