Philadelphia Inquirer

N.J. Finds 'Clean Elections' Tempting

After a campaign cycle that included record spending, ethics legislation suggests easing into public funding

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Friday, March 19, 2004

By Kaitlin Gurney
Inquirer Staff Writer

TRENTON — In a state where freshman legislator Fred Madden spent more than $4 million to capture his Senate seat last year, the idea of public financing for elections is a radical change.

But Assembly Democratic leaders – who helped raise much of the record amount, nearly $50 million, spent on last fall's Statehouse campaigns – have proposed that candidates rein in their spending and follow the lead of "clean election" states such as Maine and Arizona.

Their proposal calls for a pilot program that would select two of the 40 legislative districts, one held by Democrats and the other by Republicans, for public financing in the 2005 elections. The program could be expanded to include four districts in 2007, said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden), who introduced it as part of a 25-piece ethics package Tuesday.

"There is a sense in New Jersey that the fund-raising system has become completely out of control, and something must be done to reduce spending," said Staci Berger of New Jersey Citizen Action, a nonprofit advocacy group that helped the Democrats craft their proposal. "We're no Maine - politics is more expensive in New Jersey. This isn't going to make elections free, but it might restore some of the public's trust."

New Jersey's legislative campaigns are routinely among the most expensive in the country, thanks to the high cost of network television in the Philadelphia and New York markets.

Only five other legislative races - four in California and one in New York - have surpassed $4 million, according to the Institute for Money in State Politics, based in Montana.

In New Jersey's Statehouse campaigns last year, Democrats raised nearly $30 million and Republicans nearly $20 million.

The Fourth District race that Madden won by fewer than 100 votes now holds New Jersey's record, at nearly $6 million; former State Sen. George Geist spent about $1.3 million to Madden's $4.4 million. But even incumbents unopposed in November, such as State Sen. Nicholas Asselta (R., Cumberland), spent more than $100,000.

Compare that to the $16,000 average in Maine and Arizona.

More states are beginning to explore public financing of elections, said Paul Ryan of the Center for Governmental Studies, based in Los Angeles.

Only Arizona, which instituted public financing in 1998, and Maine, which followed suit in 2000, offer clean elections for all statewide races. Vermont offers full public financing to its candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, New Mexico to its public regulatory commission candidates, and North Carolina to its judicial candidates.

New Jersey, like many other states, offers partial public financing to gubernatorial candidates, but it does little to limit spending. Gov. McGreevey spent more than $18 million to win election in 2001.

Pennsylvania offers no public financing at any level.

"I think the proposal New Jersey is considering is far too limited. I would have liked to see the Legislature adopt a public-financing structure for all [state] races, not just a few," said Ryan, who added that California is considering a more comprehensive proposal. "Public financing is the single most effective way to eliminate pay-to-play."

New Jersey's pilot program, Roberts has said, would be based on Arizona's system. There, candidates can qualify for public financing if they raise a certain number of small donations and sign a clean election pledge. Candidates in the general election receive a base of $16,980, which can be tripled if opponents outspend them, said Barbara Lubin, executive director of the Phoenix-based Clean Elections Institute.

"The thirst for political funding has really been reduced under the clean election system," Lubin said.

Roberts and Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D., Hudson) have proposed funding the pilot program by increasing lobbyist fees from $325 a year to $500. With 578 registered lobbyists in the state, however, that would generate just a little more than $100,000.

Ryan, of the Center for Governmental Studies, warned that New Jersey should take a closer look at its proposed funding mechanism. In Vermont and Arizona, courts struck down laws that devoted state lobbyist fees to clean-election programs, he said.

The program may need additional state money, Roberts said, but he added that funding clean elections "would likely be the best investment New Jersey taxpayers ever made."

Lawmakers of both parties have been speculating which districts would be selected for the pilot program. Roberts said the two would be chosen from those where neither party has an overwhelming advantage. Freshman Assemblyman Robert Morgan (D., Monmouth) has already said he would volunteer.

McGreevey praised the ethics proposals Tuesday, but he has not said whether he would support public financing.

When New Jersey began partially financing gubernatorial candidates in 1974, it was the first state to do so, said Fred Herrman, executive director of the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission.

The system - still in use - guarantees that candidates who can raise $260,000 will receive $2 in public funding for every $1 of private funding. Funding is cut off after candidates receive $3.8 million in public money for the primary election or $5.6 million for the general election.

Herrman said he was delighted to hear that legislators had proposed extending the program to Statehouse races.

"The commission for years has supported the idea of legislative public financing," he said. "Public financing works, as it has with the gubernatorial candidates, when candidates are given sufficient dollars to run and win. That's crucial."

But what some consider a true test for New Jersey's political system, others dismiss as tokenism.

"This really seems so idealistic to me as to not be credible," said David Rebovich, a politcal-science professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville. "After all, the guys who are proposing this are some of the biggest fund-raisers in New Jersey."

Rutgers University professor Ingrid Reed said Democrats were wise to experiment with public financing. "Testing out an idea means you're serious about it – no company would introduce a new concept without testing it out in the field."

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