New Jersey Campaign Finance Reform Passes

Newsday — Thursday, March 15, 2007

Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey's plan to give taxpayer cash to candidates in three legislative districts to try to remove special-interest money from campaigns cleared the Legislature on Thursday.

If approved by the governor, New Jersey would try again to create a statewide publicly funded campaign program as Arizona, Connecticut and Maine have done.

The Senate passed the measure 23-8 after failing to approve it Monday amid concern primary elections weren't included in the plan. The Assembly followed, approving the plan 58-18.

"If enacted, these reforms will help prove that public financing can strengthen the democratic process by keeping special-interest money out of election campaigns," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., D-Camden.

Anthony Coley, spokesman for Gov. Jon S. Corzine, said the governor supports the bill.

"One's voice in Trenton shouldn't be tied to how much money they donate to political campaigns," said bill sponsor Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer. "Through clean elections financing, everyone from big corporations to working class families will have the same say."

Assemblyman Bill Baroni conceded the bill wasn't perfect, but said it's better than giving up on campaign finance reform in a state plagued by corruption.

"New Jersey can't afford to give up," said Baroni, R-Mercer. "We can't afford to give up on the idea that we can have elections where big money is taken out of it."

Under the bill, candidates for the Assembly and Senate in three districts would be eligible for public campaign financing by first raising $10,000 in seed money, with all donations coming from individuals in amounts of $500 or less.

Candidates would then be required to collect only donations of $10. Upon collecting 400 donations, candidates would get $50,000 for campaign expenses, while collecting 800 donations would earn them $100,000.

Independent candidates would be able to qualify for up to 50 percent of the amount allowed for the two major parties.

About $7.7 million would be provided to fund the program, with $6.75 million going to candidates and the rest designated for administrative expenses and public information efforts.

Assemblyman Richard Merkt said the goal was worthy, but decried the cost.

"I think it's time for us to be cautious in terms of the money we spend," said Merkt, R-Morris.

The three participating districts will be selected by April 16.

The bill aims to revamp a pilot program that had limited success in 2005 Assembly elections.

"Today's vote is certainly a breath of fresh air during a period of corruption scandal after scandal," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, which lobbied for the bill.

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