Complexity and confusion about the law may have discouraged contractors from contributing directly to candidates and parties last year

For more than a decade, New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws have provided a check on businesses’ ability to contribute money to politicians in the hope of getting a government contract in return.

Last year, political contributions by public contractors dropped to the second-lowest level since restrictions took effect, according to a report released by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission earlier this month. The $8.1 million in contributions from businesses was 11 percent lower than in 2015 and less than half the high of $16.4 million reported in 2007.

Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, said the lack of gubernatorial or legislative elections in 2016 may account for some of the decline, but the complexity of the law is also discouraging contractors from contributing directly to candidates and parties.

Under pay-to-play laws, all businesses that have $50,000 or more in public contracts and have made political contributions must disclose both contract and contribution details to ELEC by March 30th of the previous year. There are some exceptions, but most firms with state contracts totaling $17,500 or more cannot give more than $300 to candidates, political parties, and legislative leadership committees. A business that violates the prohibitions must either ask for a refund of any excess contribution promptly or relinquish its contracts for four years.