The Times, Trenton

Election Reform Shines Brightly

Roberts favors public funding

The Times of Trenton — Monday, December 10, 2007

OPINION

The sponsor and head cheerleader for New Jersey's Clean Elections program, which uses public money to fund legislative campaigns, wants to see it continued, improved and expanded in the 2009 elections.

As speaker of the Assembly, Joe Roberts, D-Bellmawr, is in a good position to get these things accomplished. He promises to push for action early in the next session of the Legislature.

The Clean Elections experiment in three legislative districts this year was "a substantial success" and showed that the program deserves to survive and grow, Roberts said in an interview.

Clean Elections' aim is to take special-interest money out of the electoral process by providing funds to candidates who agree to limit their spending and can demonstrate a base of public support by raising $400 to $800 in $10 contributions. Similar programs in Maine and Arizona have created a more level playing field and enabled a wider range of citizens to run for office, particularly women, minorities and persons of modest means.

Roberts said the improvements made to Clean Elections since the first pilot program in 2005, which flopped, led to better results this time.

"Lowering the financial threshold for participation, and making it easier for Democrats, Republicans and third-party candidates to qualify, was a big step forward," he said. "We had 16 of 20 eligible candidates participate. It validated the faith I've had in the program from the very beginning."

Roberts noted that a post-election survey showed the additional benefit that residents of the three Clean Elections districts had a greater awareness of the election and the issues than other New Jerseyans.

Will Clean Elections be extended to all 40 legislative districts in 2009? That "might be a stretch," Roberts said. "I'm prepared to go as far as we can possibly go with legislative support to expand it beyond where we are now.

"The key element has to be to include primary elections as well as the general election. In more than 30 of the 40 districts, the only election that really matters is the primary. Those districts need to be included for the program to have continued legitimacy."

It's also essential, Roberts said, that Clean Elections give fairer treatment to third-party and independent candidates, who in 2007 received only a fraction of the public funding given to Republican and Democratic candidates.

Also, the Legislature must "aggressively move" to reduce the cost in the handful of competitive districts, he said. In the 14th District, the only one of the three pilot districts in that category, each party candidate qualified for an extravagant $526,375 in public funds, a figure that was based on previous spending in the district. In addition, Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Plainsboro, received $100,000 in so-called rescue money to counter more than $125,000 worth of Swift-Boat style attack ads by an anti-gay-marriage crusader from out of state.

"I think all the candidates would acknowledge that we're spending too much and we need to use (Clean Elections) as a way to limit our reliance on dollars in campaigns," Roberts said.

Accomplishing the latter objective through Clean Elections might be another "stretch," however. New Jersey is caught in a relentless surge in campaign spending. Last month's elections for all 120 seats in the Legislature cost candidates and parties a record $69 million, 21 percent higher than the $57 million they spent in 2003. Democrats spent $2.6 million in the 12th District alone in an unsuccessful effort to re-elect Sen. Ellen Karcher, D-Marlboro.

Imposing statutory limits on spending won't work; the U.S. Supreme Court has declared them unconstitutional. The ruling allows rich candidates to self-fund their campaigns, as Jon Corzine did when he spent more than $100 million of his own money to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2000 and the governor's office in 2005. And outsiders like those who tried to hijack the 14th District Assembly election are free to raise and spend as much as they want.

Still, the basic objective of Clean Elections is attainable. It can eliminate the perception that special interests receive special benefits in return for big-money gifts to politicians. This goal, if accomplished, makes the program a bargain for the taxpayer.

"We talk about all sorts of campaign-finance reforms, whether they be pay-to-play or others, and Clean Elections has the ability to address every element," Roberts said. "It doesn't just remove the influence of some of the money, it removes the influence of all of the money."

To get Clean Elections renewed and improved, the speaker plans to follow the same method he used to enact the 2007 law. He'll appoint and work with a small committee of Assembly members who have run under Clean Elections or are experts in campaign-finance law, or both. They'll review the 2007 experience and develop a bill that they think can pass.

One advantage is that, unlike 2007, no senators will be on the ballot in 2009. The Senate "has always been a little bit more willing to let the Assembly do whatever it wants as guinea pigs, so we'll see if that continues," Roberts laughed.

Beyond perfecting a Clean Elections system for legislative races, its sponsor would like to see the principle of public funding eventually extended to municipal and county elections.

"I'm working on some ideas along those lines," he said.

Copyright 2007 The Times of Trenton

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