Asbury Park Press

Tax-funded Campaigns Might Be Tried In N.J.

Asbury Park Press — Friday, June 4, 2004

By MICHAEL SYMONS
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

TRENTON — If recent experiences with federal campaign finance reforms are mirrored in New Jersey, says the Assembly majority leader, pay-to-play reforms being considered by state lawmakers won't solve the problem.

Reforms will change the rules, Assembly Majority Leader Joseph J. Roberts Jr., D-Camden, said yesterday at a joint legislative hearing. But just as the federal reforms prompted an explosion of independent groups, political cash will find a way to reach campaigns.

And that, Roberts says, is the reason he advocates a pilot program in two Assembly districts next year that will provide up to $100,000 in public funds to candidates that agree to "clean elections" rules and fund-raising limits.

"Removing some of the money from politics is certainly a worthy goal, and you will be doing that with contract reform and pay-to-play legislation," Roberts said. "But our goal has to be to radically reform the systems and eliminate to the extent that we can the corrosive influence of money in politics."

The bill is one part of a package of 25 ethics, campaign-finance and lobbying reforms advancing through the Senate and Assembly. All but a study of dual office-holding were approved yesterday by Senate and Assembly committees.

Republican senators abstained from voting on 12 bills because they hadn't yet been introduced in that house. The two Republicans on the Assembly committee abstained from the votes on the public financing plan but voted for nearly all the others.


Trial districts named

Republicans questioned whether the "clean elections" program will leave participating candidates unable to withstand an onslaught of late-in-the-race outside funding. They also question how Democrats identified trial districts.

Democrats will choose from among districts 6, 7 and 15, and Republicans will choose from among districts 9, 11 and 13. Roberts said districts where races are ordinarily one-sided, those with bipartisan delegations and those that recently switched control or are targeted were out.

"There's frankly too much at stake, and the temptation for independent organizations and party apparatus to be involved in ways that would be contrary to giving this a fair trial," Roberts said.

Each list includes the district in which each party won by the closest margins in 2003. Those are the GOP-controlled 13th District in Monmouth County and the Democratic-controlled 7th District, mostly in Burlington County.

So-called "clean elections" have been a longtime goal for activist groups, including New Jersey Citizen Action. Its program director, Staci Berger, said pay-to-play contributions now account for 20 percent of campaign funds.

AARP state director Marilyn Askin called the "clean elections" proposal the most significant of the reforms being considered this month and "the long-term answer to pay to play."

"Just imagine, more time to focus on policy and constituent work. No pressure to raise tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars for your election. No strings attached from meeting campaign contributors," Askin said.

Sen. Nicholas V. Asselta, R-Cumberland, in an attempt to show money isn't required to have influence, noted that AARP in New Jersey -- which claims 1.35 million members -- makes no campaign contributions but has a strong voice.


Contributions threshold

One of the aspects of the program debated yesterday is the requirement that candidates raise 1,000 contributions of $5 and 500 contributions of $30 from residents of the district to get $100,000 from the state.

Maine requires 50 contributions of $5, according to Stuart Shaw of the group Clean Money United. Arizona requires 200.

Berger said the number of voters from whom a candidate needs to get contributions roughly equals the share of the voters in a district in Maine. She said the requirement is reasonable.

Berger said it's possible to knock on 60 doors a night, although she said contributions would be pursued through mailings, barbecues and other grassroots efforts.

"Right now, 1,500 people probably couldn't contribute to a campaign because nobody's asking them. The whole point of this is to turn the political system of few people giving a lot of money on its head," Berger said.

Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, said that if a candidate needed 1,500 small contributions and relied solely on going door-to-door, it would take 25 nights -- and that's only if every person gave money. They won't, he said.

"It sounds like Amway, rather than a way to run an election," Carroll said. "The number of hours in the day are the same in Maine as they are in New Jersey. Calling 50 people takes exactly the same amount of time in Maine as it does in New Jersey."

Sen. Leonard T. Connors Jr., R-Ocean, questioned whether the Senate committee could even vote on the proposals yesterday because they won't be introduced until Monday. Text of the Senate bills isn't yet available to the general public.

"This is nothing more than a sham. What we have to do is go back and touch first. How can we talk about clean elections? . . . All of us sitting here have an obligation to follow the rules. We are not following the rules," Connors said.

Democrats noted that bills have had committee hearings before they were introduced in the past -- even in committees Connors has chaired, and on bills he sponsored.

"I'm sure this is not the first time that this has happened. You've been here longer than I have. You're aware of that," said Sen. Joseph Coniglio, D-Bergen, who chairs the Senate State Government Committee.

"Having been in the Legislature for more years than I can count, I will tell you I have seen on hundreds of occasions bills that have been listed on agendas pending introduction and referral. It is absolutely routine," Roberts said.

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