New Jersey Herald

'Clean Elections' Program May Expand To Local Races

New Jersey Herald — Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Associated Press Writer
and Herald staff reports

TRENTON — Corruption-plagued New Jersey may expand a bid to remove special interest influence from its elections.

But while a top leader in the Legislature says he wants public financing of political campaigns expanded to local elections in 2008, and more state elections in 2009, county Clean Election candidates have varied opinions on the success of the program.

"It is simply unaffordable," said Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose, R-Sussex, who was among 16 candidates who participated in the 2007 program.

"In order to afford the people of New Jersey the opportunity to fully discuss the clean elections concept, its costs and funding sources, I would like to see the program on the ballot as a nonbinding referendum in November 2009," McHose said.

But the Democratic Senate candidate in the 24th District, Edwin C. Selby, said, "We can afford Fair and Clean Elections. It is the current system of political financing that we can no longer afford."

A trial version of the program provided legislative candidates in three districts with public funds — versus money donated by special interest groups. The experimental program was approved by Gov. Jon S. Corzine and the Legislature for candidates in the 14th, 24th and 37th districts to get campaign funds in 2007 from the state budget.

Supporters hoped the program would allow candidates to concentrate on issues, not fundraising, in a state where more than 100 officials have been convicted on federal corruption charges in the last five years.

In all, 16 candidates in the three districts received $4.1 million from the state.

"The experiences from (2007's) three Clean Elections districts prove the addiction to special interest money can be broken and voters can become willing participants in meaningful, issue-driven campaigns," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., D-Camden.

Roberts' proposal to expand public financing of political campaigns would move New Jersey closer to having a statewide publicly funded campaign program such as Arizona, Connecticut and Maine.

Roberts said he's also examining whether the program should be extended to local elections in 2008.

"We need a broader expansion of Clean Elections," said Roberts. "We need to keep pushing the envelope for improvement, fairness and spending controls."

But Republicans question whether the cash-strapped state government can afford the program, and if taxpayers support it. New Jersey has been facing chronic budget deficits, including a $3 billion shortfall projected for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

McHose said the program doesn't do enough to reform state elections.

She wants to change how the state draws district lines, fills legislative vacancies and allows legislative leaders and county political parties to build influential campaign spending accounts.

"Real reform must move along a broad front of issues," McHose said.

She said a statewide publicly financed campaign program for legislative candidates could cost $100 million.

Selby said he believes the project "was a complete success" even if he didn't win the election and "I believe I was able to wage an effective campaign with the funds available to me."

Selby's comments came in a letter to Amy F. Davis of the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Selby was invited to speak to the commission, but said a prior commitment prevented him from making the public session held last month.

Writing about the cost of a state-wide program, Selby said, "If corporations can fund campaigns, why can't the people through their elected officials? It is the current system of political financing that we can no longer afford."

Selby said the Clean Elections program should also be made available for the primary campaigns and suggested the minimum number of debates be expanded to four.

He also criticized the New Jersey Citizen Action, one of the partners in the experiment, for making comments about his campaign donating money to other Democratic candidates. "While individuals might find this practice contrary to the goals of the experiment, it was not only in keeping with the instructions and official feedback we received from the ELEC staff, but provisions for such donations were clearly made in the forms for reporting disbursements," he wrote.

The donations, he said, became a campaign issue and hurt the effort to build statewide support for Fair and Clean Elections.

New Jersey isn't the only state considering public campaign financing. According to the Public Campaign Action Fund, 28 states are weighing it.

A recent poll by Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics and Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind found 70 percent of voters in the districts that participated in the program heard about their legislative races, compared to 37 percent statewide.

It also found 41 percent of voters in the districts heard campaigns focused on issues, compared to 25 percent statewide.

But the poll found about 40 percent of all voters "not confident at all" that public financing would cut the influence of money in politics.

Corzine ranked examining the Clean Elections program as among his top ethics reforms priorities for 2008. He supports the concept.

Roberts deemed the program "very positive" and said he will seek three changes:

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