The Times, Trenton

Reauthorizing Clean Elections

The Times of Trenton — Wednesday, March 28, 2007

BY STEVE LENOX

Two years ago, New Jersey began a revolutionary political experiment with the potential to root out entirely the corrupting power that money holds over state legislative campaigns. In establishing the nation's first legislatively enacted system of publicly financed "Clean Elections," New Jersey began a journey to once again make voters, rather than big-money donors, the focus of election campaigns.

Under Clean Elections, candidates who garner a minimum number of small, individual contributions can qualify for public financing with which to run their campaigns. In exchange for the public money, these candidates must entirely swear off private fundraising, which frees them to meet with voters and constituents as opposed to political rainmakers.

When the pilot program was first put into practice in two 2005 Assembly races, the results showed both the promise of Clean Elections and the limitations of the inaugural system. Of the eight major- party candidates that sought to meet the qualification require ments for the program, only two were successful. But those fits and starts only emboldened supporters to fine-tune the system and make it work.

In 13 public hearings held over the course of a year, the bipartisan New Jersey Citizens' Clean Elections Commission heard from candidates, interest groups from all ranges of the political spectrum and voters in an effort to improve the system. Everyone who came before us offered unique insights and ideas for reforming and strengthening our state's Clean Elections program, many of which were included in the commission's final report.

The commission closed its business with a comprehensive set of recommendations for moving Clean Elections forward. The final report was not the end-all and be-all on Clean Elections in New Jersey. In order to ensure the passage of legislation to renew the program for 2007, Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, D-Brooklawn, appointed a four-member bipartisan legislative task force – consisting of two lawmakers who sat on the New Jersey Citizens' Clean Elections Commis sion and two lawmakers who participated in the 2005 program – to develop consensus legislation that could pass both houses and become law.

That measure overwhelmingly passed both houses, and Gov. Jon Corzine is expected to sign the measure in the coming days.

On the eve of what should be a celebratory day for Clean Elections supporters, some critics – unwilling to cheer the broad areas of agreement among Clean Elections proponents – have launched an 11th-hour push to discredit the program. Chief among their criticism is that it would not include this year's primary elections. This logic fails to recognize that Clean Elections have yet to fully succeed even for the general election.

Simply put, we must ensure that the system will work before we extend it. Based on the experience from 2005, New Jersey's experiment in Clean Elections is not yet at the point where it can carry the weight of primary elections this year. In fact, the new system's own authorizing legislation envisions the inclusion of primary elections as early as 2009 – so long as we see marked improvement in 2007.

To use the analogy: We must make sure the system can crawl before it can walk.

The proposed law also makes great strides in how candidates can claim their public funding. Under the bill awaiting Gov. Corzine's pen, candidates who exhibit a true good-faith effort to qualify will earn some public financing even if they fail to meet the standard of receiving the standard 800 qualifying contributions. The commission's report would not provide such funding. If we want candidates to stay focused and willing to become clean candidates, we cannot sum marily dismiss their efforts.

Finally, the Assembly's measure provides even more time for candi dates to qualify to run under the Clean Elections banner. Given the delay in getting the law passed and signed, this additional time is necessary.

Our overarching goal must be the continuation of a viable Clean Elections pilot program that we can continually upgrade and improve over time. It is essential that a Clean Elections law be enacted to allow the program to continue this year.

The Assembly has put forward a workable, viable plan to make Clean Elections a meaningful tool for reshaping our state's political system for the better. Pushing for more than can conceivably be handled at this time risks failure and the death of Clean Elections alto gether.

Steve Lenox, of Jamesburg, was vice-chairman of the New Jersey Citizens' Clean Elections Commission.

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