The Star-Ledger

Corzine Renews A Revised 'Clean Elections' Pilot Program

The Star-Ledger — Thursday, March 29, 2007

After hitting "major bumps" during its first tryout, an experimental program intended to get special interest money out of politics was given a second chance yesterday.

Gov. Jon Corzine signed a bill renewing a "clean elections" pilot program that provides public funding to legislative candidates who demonstrate they have wide support by raising lots of contributions in small amounts. The revised program will be tried this fall in three legislative districts.

Supporters contend that by freeing candidates from reliance on big-money donors who expect to be rewarded later, the program could combat corruption and open doors of political opportunity.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden), who has championed the program, said it holds "great promise" to "remove the corrosive influence of money on politics." Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), a sponsor, said, "This bill will help more women and minorities be able to run for public office."

But when the program was first tried in two Assembly districts in 2005, only two of the 10 eligible candidates raised enough small contributions to qualify for public funding. Roberts said the original program was "too bureaucratic" and hit "major bumps."

"We learned from our experience," Corzine said, adding the new program makes it easier to raise enough contributions to qualify for public funding.

Three legislative districts will be chosen for the experiment this fall, including one where power is split between Republicans and Democrats. It will mark its first use in a Senate race. Republican and Democratic legislative leaders will each pick one district and must jointly agree on the third. If they cannot do that by April 11, the choice will go to a five-member committee.

In all 40 legislative districts, the one Senate seat and two Assembly seats are up for election in November.

Under the old program, candidates had to collect 1,000 checks for $5 each and 500 checks for $30 each to qualify. The revised program requires candidates to collect 400 contributions of $10 each – by cash, check or credit card – to qualify for partial funding and 800 contributions to get full public funding. They also may collect $10,000 of "seed money" in contributions no larger than $500 but may not tap pre-existing war chests.

How much public funding they get depends on a number of factors. In the so-called competitive district, it will be determined by average spending in the last two elections. In the other two districts, Republicans and Democrats can ordinarily get up to $100,000, but the Election Law Enforcement Commission can triple that limit to counter spending by independent groups and candidates who reject public funding.

Independent candidates can qualify for public funding but get half as much as "major party" candidates. Asked about that, Roberts said, "We have, for better or worse, a two-party system."

David Rebovich, a political science professor at Rider University, called the revamped program "more realistic" but said, "There are still criticisms that the plan does not include funding for primaries."

Both Roberts and Corzine said they support public funding of primaries if the program is extended to the 2009 elections.

"The primaries in many cases are where the real elections are," Roberts said. "I think it's essential that they be included."

Vic DeLuca of New Jersey Citizen Action said it will lobby "to ensure that clean elections become a reality across the entire state and in every state legislative election."

The new law appropriates up to $6.7 million for the program.

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