TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Watchdog groups are raising new concerns about the growing number of political action committees that critics say are skirting New Jersey’s various pay-to-play laws.

A review by The Star-Ledger of Newark found that the PACs have collected millions of dollars from engineering firms, insurance brokers and other contractors and then made sizable donations to elected officials who award government contracts.

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The watchdog groups acknowledge that the PACs are not violating state or local pay-to-play laws, which often bar contractors from donating large sums directly to county political organizations. But they say the PACs are violating the spirit of the laws, which were intended to ensure contractors earn their business fairly.

The watchdog groups — and many officials — want the state Legislature to close the loopholes that allow the donations to occur.

“Money buys results,” said former state Sen. Bill Schluter, a Republican who is chairman of the state Ethics Commission. “At the very least it’s tribute, not just to gain access but to ensure you get a fair shake. What we have is government by tribute, which is not a good sign.”

But John Tully, chairman of one such PAC, Coalition for Government Efficiency, and a former director of the state Division of Revenue, says they operate within the law.

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“They don’t give it to make a contribution to usurp the law,” he said. “We’re quite aware of pay-to-play laws. I’ve helped develop them. We’re not trying to circumvent anything.”

The newspaper’s review found that Republicans and Democrats both benefit from PACS.

As an example, it found two of the state’s top Democrats — Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is chairman of the Democratic State Committee, and state Sen. Bob Smith — both of Middlesex County, have ties to several of the higher-spending organizations. It found that ten PACs in and around Middlesex county are largely financed by the same contractors and have raised and spent about $2.1 million since 2008 — with much of the money going to politicians barred from accepting large donations directly from the contractors.

Wisniewski said he did not approve of circumventing pay-to-play laws, adding that he didn’t have enough information to judge whether that’s what any of the PACs were doing. The newspaper said Smith did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

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