"Since we don't know anything about it, you can only conjecture," said State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), a leading critic who last week wrote the organization's founders, asking them to shed some light on their operation. They had not responded, she said.
The center is shrouded in secrecy because it is organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code as a nonprofit issues-advocacy group that does not have to divulge its donors, its spending, or even how much money it has raised.
The group will pay fees for attorneys and demographers hired by the GOP to give them an edge in redrawing the boundaries of the state's 40 legislative districts.
It was formed by Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union), who serves as its vice president, and Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R., Morris), who serves as president, in 2009. Officers of the fund include Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R., Union) and State Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R., Somerset).
Redrawing district lines is an act of pure politics conducted every decade after the census. Both parties have hired lawyers and demographers who are experts in redistricting. They will use legal arguments, population statistics, and data on voter behavior to configure the districts. Both sides will try to lump as many friendly voters into the districts as they can to capture or keep control of the Legislature.
According to the new population figures, New Jersey's 40 districts should have about 220,000 people apiece so voters can be better represented by their elected officials.
Over the last decade, some districts, which have one senator and two Assembly members, have grown and others have shrunk. The bipartisan Apportionment Commission, made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, redraws the district boundaries.
Kean said he established the center to encourage public input to the commission. He has declined, however, to explain what that encouragement could entail.
"Their mission is questionable because what they say and what these groups do are two different things," Weinberg said.
Kean is among the Legislature's leaders on campaign-finance reform and pay-to-play limits. So is his most outspoken critic, Weinberg. For now, though, he and Weinberg seem to part ways on the issue of whether elected officials can raise unlimited amounts of money far above the legal limits for organizations like the Center for a Better New Jersey.
Kean said he was comfortable with the secrecy surrounding the center's finances because the center doesn't directly affect any particular election.
Reapportionment, however, directly influences the outcomes of many legislative elections for years to come. Republicans won the redistricting battle in 1991 and eventually took over the state Legislature. Democrats won in 2001 and control it now.
A legal analyst with the Campaign Legal Center, a national nonpartisan group created to keep an eye on money in politics, said Kean and DeCroce's secret fund was disconcerting. "I am troubled by the idea of any elected legislators around the United States being permitted to raise unlimited, undisclosed amounts of money to redraw their own districts," said Paul Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center.
Kean, spokesman for the Center for a Better New Jersey, is not on the Apportionment Commission. One of its donors, though, is. State Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Essex) contributed $5,000 to the fund in June 2009, before he was named to the commission.
He did not return a call for comment.
Ryan noted that Kean and DeCroce's fund was legal but said: "Just because it may be legal doesn't mean it's right."
Kean, DeCroce, State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth), and O'Toole donated a combined $40,000 to the center from their campaign accounts, according to their financial-disclosure forms, which are public records.
Two of New Jersey's Republican members of the U.S. House, Scott Garrett and Rodney Frelinghuysen, contributed a combined $35,000 from campaign accounts they control, according to their campaign accounts' public reports.
Other than the $75,000 and any other cash contributed by groups and individuals required to disclose how they spend money, the rest probably will stay in the dark.
Kean said the group would follow applicable laws, which means it doesn't have to disclose donors.
Democrats also criticized a similar group, Reform Jersey Now, which also did not have to disclose spending and donors. They argue that donors can use such groups to circumvent state campaign-contribution limits. By giving large amounts to secret funds, they can influence elected officials who can, in turn, tweak laws and grant other governmental favors.
Reform Jersey Now was associated with Gov. Christie, who raised money for it and who benefited from its campaign to push his public policies, including a cap on municipal spending.
The group disbanded last year after voluntarily releasing contribution amounts and the names of donors, many of whom were state vendors and who would have run afoul of the state's pay-to-play restrictions had they donated equally large sums to campaign accounts.
Laws requiring disclosure and limiting campaign contributions are aimed at reducing corruption.
Weinberg said that if Reform Jersey Now were a Frankenstein's monster, the Center for a Better New Jersey would be the "son of Frankenstein, because they share the same DNA."
A similar issue involving Democrats came up on the national scene last year.
A fund established by the Democratic National Committee in March asked the Federal Election Commission if House members could help it solicit unlimited amounts of money for redistricting efforts.
The FEC said it was OK.
The Campaign Legal Center, however, argued that the Democrats' view was "absurd. This should be treated as a party entity because it is one. Redistricting activities should be considered connected to elections, because they, in a very real sense, are," Ryan said.
Kean and DeCroce, just like the national parties, formed a fund in the aftermath of tightened campaign-finance laws on national and state levels. The McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 prohibited political parties from raising unlimited cash from donors. New Jersey has been nipping and tucking its limits because of a torrent of scandals through the last decade.
Weinberg coauthored a bill requiring organizations such as the Center for a Better New Jersey to disclose donors and spending. The bill cleared the Senate but awaits Assembly action.
Whether Kean and DeCroce will disclose their donors and spending is unknown. Weinberg, however, said she planned to get her bill moving.
Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or firstname.lastname@example.org.