Assembly Panel Hears Views On Election Finance — Friday, May 21, 2004


A state Assembly committee held its first public hearing Thursday night to discuss a dramatic new proposal to experiment with taxpayer-financed legislative election campaigns in New Jersey.

The Assembly's State Government Committee hearing in a student center at Montclair State University drew few interested voters and only several dozen representatives of an array of interest groups.

But the hearing offered a study of comparative politics, with a lawmaker and activists in Maine explaining – via videophone – their experience in running publicly financed campaigns, and New Jersey lawmakers speaking about contrasts in the two states' politics.

The event was another round in the public discussions of a wide range of Democratic and Republican ethics measures now under consideration in the Legislature.

The Democratic bill to begin an experiment in the public financing of elections, called the New Jersey Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Project, allows for the voluntary participation by candidates in several district races yet to be chosen. Candidates must collect at least 1,000 donations of $5 each and 500 contributions of $30 each to qualify for the public funding.

One of the measure's proponents, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Roberts, D-Camden, said the key in passing such a measure is building voter support.

"We need to convince the public that this is an appropriate way for their tax dollars to be spent," he told the five committee members at the hearing.

George Christie, a political activist in Maine who helped gain passage of the nation's first publicly financed legislative elections, told the panel that such measures reduce greatly the influence of special interests and large contributors who give huge sums to candidates running expensive campaigns.

"These are largely good people stuck in a bad game," Christie said of political candidates who must collect money to pay to get their message out to voters via expensive television commercials. "Many of the people in our state felt that the game stunk."

The committee was expected Thursday night to vote on and approve a variety of ethics proposals to strengthen the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, the party's leadership said in a prepared statement. But the measure for taxpayer-funded campaign was not up for a vote.

Earlier Thursday in Trenton, Republican senators attempted to shift attention to ethics issues that the Democrats have not addressed. They did so by moving for consideration of a bill to bar those with state contracts from contributing to political campaigns at any level - a comprehensive ban on so-called pay-to-play practices.

The Senate passed such a bill last year, but it died in the Assembly. Predictably, Thursday's motion fell short, gaining only 19 of 40 votes. Sen. Ellen Karcher of Monmouth County, a first-year member who campaigned on ethics issues, was the only Democrat to vote with the GOP.

With Democrats moving toward passage of several ethics measures, including weaker limits on contractor contributions, Republicans have insisted that comprehensive pay-to-play reform is all that matters.

"We feel pay-to-play is the most important ethical issue confronting the governance of this state," said Sen. Leonard Lance of Hunterdon County, the Republican minority leader.

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