The Star-Ledger

'Clean Elections' Approved

State trying another limited pilot effort

The Star-Ledger — Friday, March 16, 2007

Lawmakers yesterday approved a second pilot program aimed at limiting special interest contributions to campaigns for the state Legislature by offering public funding to candidates.

After a struggle to get enough votes, the Senate passed the Clean Elections Pilot Project Act 23-7, with five abstentions The Assembly followed in a 58-18 vote, with three abstentions. The measure now goes to Gov. Jon Corzine, who is expected to sign it.

The bill is a second attempt to conduct public and state-funded "clean elections." A pilot program conducted in 2005 covered two legislative districts, but was not uti lized by most of the candidates. The latest bill is designed to include three yet-to-be-determined competitive districts featuring Assembly and Senate campaigns. The districts must be selected by April 9.

"Clean elections are not Republican or Democratic issues, but rather issues for everyone who cares about the honesty and transparency of our democracy," said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), the upper house sponsor. "The Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Project will reduce the influence of special interest money and is a critical part of any reform effort moving for ward."

Under the bill (A-100/S-2438), candidates in the selected districts can be certified as "clean elections" candidates by each raising up to $10,000 in seed money, with all do nations coming from individuals in amounts of $500 or less. Candi dates would then be required to collect donations of $10. Once they collect 400 of these donations, candidates would receive $50,000 in state aid for campaign expenditures. Collecting 800 donations would earn them a full $100,000 in state clean elections funds.

The bill allows candidates participating in the program to get extra state funding if their oppo nents do not participate, or if their opponents get money from third parties or other campaigns. The measure sets aside $7.6 million in state funds.

The bill, however, barely sur vived in the Senate, where critics claimed it allowed for too much campaign spending and said it would leave publicly funded candi dates vulnerable to unlimited at tacks from outside interest groups.

On Monday, when the bill was first posted for a Senate vote, it failed to attract the 21 votes needed for passage, and was withdrawn.

Yesterday, the bill hung in sus pension for about five minutes with just 19 votes cast in favor. Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) broke the stalemate. After the vote, Lesniak made it clear he was no fan of the measure, and that he would not support a third try at clean campaigns if this year's version flops like the first experiment.

"In this case, for me, it's two strikes and you're out," he said.

Staff writer Dunstan McNichol contributed to this report.

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