PoliticsNJ.com

Democrats Propose Test Of Public Financing For Legislative Races

PoliticsNJ.com — Tuesday, March 16, 2004

By STEVE KORNACKI
PoliticsNJ.com

Assembly Democratic leaders unveiled their long-anticipated ethics reform proposal in Trenton today, and the fight can now begin over whether the plan truly addresses the pay-to-play culture that predominates New Jersey government.

But lost in the commotion over the contributions-for-contracts controversy could be one component of the plan that would radically change the way state legislative elections in New Jersey are conducted: a proposed public financing system.

Many who follow the system closely say it's an overdue concept in the Garden State, where spending records were shattered in last year's legislative races.

The more than $50 million spent last fall is staggering even before you consider that most of the action was centered in about a half-dozen of the state's 40 legislative districts, the so-called "battleground districts."

If adopted, the Democrats' plan would be the first "clean elections" program in the country aimed at state legislative candidates and enacted through the legislative process.

It would designate two districts next year -- one with Republican incumbents and one with Democratic incumbents -- as a test of the program.

General election candidates would participate voluntarily and would have to reach a certain threshold of small donations from donors in their district to qualify for state money.

The money disbursed would be based on the average expenditures in the district in several previous elections. Candidates participating would be required to take part in two debates during the campaign and would also receive a "clean election" designation on the ballot.

If a review after the 2005 election indicated support for the program, it would be expanded to include four districts in 2007, when it would also cover primary elections.

A more thorough evaluation after that election cycle would determine whether the program should be made permanent and statewide.

"We have the potential to dramatically lower the spending disparities between candidates," said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph J. Roberts, Jr. (D-Camden).

Roberts is one of the main architects of the proposal, which was drafted with significant input from Citizen Action, a national "good government" group.

It's loosely modeled after clean election programs in Maine and Arizona, states that lack the disciplined and well-funded political machines that dominate the Garden State.

But Roberts said he thinks the principle of clean elections can work here.

"We have a challenge and that is to convince candidates that it can work in a way that doesn't affect their ability to run aggressive campaigns," he said.

But, as even the majority leader acknowledged, the public could be skeptical.

"You have to sell public financing to New Jerseyans," said David Rebovich, the director of Rider University's Institute for New Jersey Politics. "A large number of folks don't want to spend taxpayer dollars on campaigns."

Roberts would expand the definition of lobbyists and hike their registration fees to fund the clean elections program.

"If you said to the public that you have a chance to spend a little money and that that money would allow you to once and for all guarantee that the corrosive influence of money on politics was eliminated, I think most people in New Jersey would take that deal," he said.

Roberts said the two districts used for the '05 pilot program should fall somewhere between the "safe" and "toss-up" categories.

In reality, those districts might be tough to identify, since almost all districts last year could either be defined as either "safe" or "toss-up."

In fact, the overwhelming majority of districts last year were safe seats, with victory virtually ceded to the dominant party's candidates long before the election.

Giving candidates in those areas a chance to run and get their messages out would be good for everyone, said Ingrid Reed, the director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute.

"It would make legislative races more competitive, which would automatically give voters an advantage...and out of that, I think, would come better legislation," she said.

Roberts said success for the program would be easy to define: narrower gaps in spending between incumbents and challengers; more diverse candidates running for office; and acceptance of public financing by elected officials.

"I think it's an idea that absolutely has to be put in the political hopper," said Reed.

Still, it's an open question whether candidates in the handful of battleground districts would want to opt into a system that might put them at a financial disadvantage.

For instance, last fall Fred Madden spent nearly $5 million to capture a state Senate seat in the 4th District. His margin of victory was fewer than 100 votes, meaning he probably needed every dollar he spent to win.

Madden outspent his opponent, George Geist, by a wide margin, and Roberts was asked what incentive someone in Madden's situation would have to give up his big donations and take a smaller check from the state.

The majority leader noted the difficulty Madden faced in running as a first-time candidate against a well-known incumbent.

"That's a legitimate issue," he said.

Copyright 2004 PoliticsNJ.com

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