The Star-Ledger

Clean Elections Can Disinfect Our Politics

The Star-Ledger — Thursday, April 15, 2004

By STACI BERGER AND STEVE BONIME

We are strongly encouraged by the Assembly Democrats' recent introduction of a pilot program to establish Clean Elections in New Jersey. That's not an oxymoron but the name Maine and Arizona gave to their programs for full public financing of state elections.

In New Jersey, we've called a similar proposal Fair and Clean Elections (FACE) because special- interest money is virtually eliminated for those who qualify for a share of the state election fund and doing so restores the concept of fairness to the political process. Whatever the moniker, the fact that the Legislature is debating this critical policy initiative brings hope for significant change.

In most states, the high cost of campaigning forces candidates to accept money from private, special interests that they would prefer not to have to take. Corporations, which routinely outspend unions 6-to-1, have the greatest influence on the political process through their campaign contributions.

Bad policy decisions that result from reliance on privately financed elections can dwarf pay-to-play scandals, which expose businesses rewarded for their political contributions with public contracts.

The state's energy industry was deregulated after Enron gave $120,000 to legislators from both parties.

Parsons, which gave $250,000 to Republicans, secured legislation to privatize public motor vehicle inspections and obtained the contract to do the work.

Since 1999, New Jersey's pharmaceutical industry has made more than $2 million in contributions, and, not surprisingly, prescription drugs remain unaffordable for seniors, low-income folks and people with disabilities.

The choices made by our Legislature cost us much more in the long run – in higher utility rates, loss of public services, and expensive prescriptions – than public financing of elections ever could.

Contrast this with Maine and Arizona, which are now in their third cycle of publicly funded elections for all state offices. In Arizona, where candidates run for 11 statewide offices, nine of the victors in 2002 "ran clean" and won, including the governor. In Maine, a majority of seats in both houses of the Legislature are now held by candidates who ran clean. In fact, 77 percent of Maine senators won election through public funding.

Shortly after implementing Clean Elections, the Maine Legislature began providing prescription drug discounts for hundreds of thousands of uninsured residents. Recently, Maine announced it would begin to provide universal health care coverage to all uninsured residents. Try getting universal health care in New Jersey without first getting the drug companies and insurance industry out of the Statehouse.

How does the campaign financing system work? Candidates choose to accept public funding or raise money on their own, much as they do now.

Clean Elections participants qualify by proving they have significant support. In Maine and Arizona, candidates must collect a threshold number of $5 donations exclusively from residents of their district. The thresholds vary by office but are as low as 100 contributions for some legislative offices. To collect qualifying contributions, candidates may raise $1,000 in seed money.

Once qualified, these candidates take only public funds disbursed by an oversight commission, like New Jersey's Election Law Enforcement Commission. Under the proposal, the ELEC would establish funding for each race, based on previous spending levels, so that publicly funded candidates can be competitive. Best of all, these candidates get to use a Clean Elections logo on their materials and on the ballot so voters know who ran clean.

Public funding is the most promising means of improving ethics and reducing the influence of money on politics. In Maine and Arizona, the new system is popular with voters and with incumbents and challengers alike.

Legislators no longer have to consider the effect their votes and campaign messages might have on wealthy donors. As one Maine legislator said, "I look forward to not thinking about how my votes will affect fund-raising in the next campaign."

Some critics paint Clean Elections as an attack on taxpayers because the public funds campaigns. The truth is that Clean Elections pays for itself, both in the long- term effect it will have on public policy and the creative means by which states can raise election funds. Arizona pays for Clean Elections mostly through a 10 percent surcharge on all civil and criminal penalties. Maine uses an aggressive campaign for tax-deductible donations to augment the state fund. Fines assessed for campaign violations help pay for the program, too.

Politics in New Jersey needs a clean sweep to bring in new ideas and restore one-person, one-vote in Trenton. Instead of legislators being forced to answer to their biggest contributors, they could be accountable to all voters. Clean Elections is the only comprehensive mechanism for leveling the playing field for candidates, encouraging new candidates to run, reducing spending in elections and returning credibility to the democratic process. It truly is time to put a new FACE on New Jersey's politics.

Staci Berger is program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, a public advocacy group. Steve Bonime is an organizer.
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