Gloucester County Times

Roberts Pushes 'Clean Election' Plan

Gloucester County Times — Wednesday, May 5, 2004

By Terrence Dopp

TRENTON — Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts on Tuesday said he is emboldened by a fact-finding trip to Maine to study the feasibility of publicly financed elections in New Jersey.

Roberts, D-5, of Camden began the two-day jaunt to study that state's own track record with public financing, a funding scheme voters approved eight years ago in a public referendum.

A trial run of so-called "clean elections" is one aspect of a 25-point ethics package he is pushing for New Jersey.

"There is growing public support for it," Roberts said in a phone interview after meetings with Maine lawmakers and election officials. "It seems like the program there has been resoundingly successful."

He said about 60 percent of Maine political hopefuls took the money in the last election cycle and about 75 percent are expected to participate in the next.

The system requires candidates seeking office to raise a small "threshold" quantity of donations to be eligible for public money, which is paid by taxpayers on a voluntary basis. Candidates opting against conducting their own fund-raising operations are barred from taking outside money.

Only Arizona has a similar system, which also was approved when voters sidestepped the Legislature in a public initiative.

The issue of reforming the Garden State's ethics laws has been a hot-button issue for two years and resulted in voters ousting several incumbents in the 2003 election, including the Senate's top Republican.

Federal prosecutors are investigating two former aides to Gov. James E. McGreevey and probing Democratic fund-raisers.

"The way I like to put it is, to whatever extent legislators are owned by the people who finance them, wouldn't it be better for us to own them?" asked Steve Bonime, an organizer with New Jersey Citizen Action and proponent of public financing.

Roberts conceded differences abound between the nation's most densely populated state and the Pine Tree State, which gets it's nickname from the nine-tenths of the state carpeted with the evergreens. He said the law has been amended slightly in Maine to make it more effective.

"New Jersey is in the most expensive media markets in the nation. Our races are expensive where as theirs are not. And our districts are bigger," Roberts said.

Republicans criticized the trip, saying Roberts is overlooking the need to end "pay-to-play" politics or the practice of campaign contributors being awarded lucrative government contracts.

"I'm somewhat miffed we are taking this kind of energy and time to go to another state and study ethical issues when we have so many problems," said Assemblyman Guy Gregg, R-Sussex/Hunterdon. "Possibly a visit to the FBI more have been a more purposeful trip. Quite frankly they have more information there than there is in Maine."

Republicans, pointing to a failed experiment in Massachusetts, said Roberts should focus on other ethics reforms.

"Simply because something doesn't work in one place doesn't mean it is without merit," Roberts said. "If anything holds the promise of being the ultimate (pay-to-play) reform, it is public financing."

Accompanying Roberts on the trip were Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, two staffers from the Assembly Democratic office and a Roberts aide. Citizen Action members also attended.

Assembly Democrats said the two lawmakers paid their own costs for the trip.

Other components of the "Restoring the Public Trust" package include ending no-bid contracts and tightening the state's conflict-of-interest laws.

Roberts' package would also mandate greater financial disclosure from lawmakers and require tighter government supervision over lobbyists.

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