The Star-Ledger

Expansion Of 'Clean Elections' Is Urged

The Star-Ledger — Monday, October 2, 2007

BY ROBERT SCHWANEBERG
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

Having proved it can work this year in three of the state's 40 legislative districts, an experimental program of replacing special-interest contributions with taxpayer funding deserves to be "substantially expanded," Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) said yesterday.

But Roberts, who championed the "clean elections" program in the Legislature, said it also must be revamped to reduce the generous amount of funding it gives to participating candidates.

"I'm not going to support an expansion of this program at the current levels, because it's excessive," Roberts said. "We need to ratchet down the cost."

He also said he wants the program to expand into primary elections and provide "parity" to independent candidates, who were eligibie this year for a fraction of the funds available to Democrats and Republicans.

Roberts made his comments during and after a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton to note the success of the experimental program this year after a disappointing tryout in 2005, when only two of the 10 eligibie candidates raised enough small contributions from voters to qualify for taxpayer funding of their campaigns.

This year, 16 of 20 candidates in the test districts qualified for public funding by raising at least 400 contributions of $10 each from registered voters.

"We're light-years ahead of where we were two years ago," Roberts said at a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton. "We went from hitting .200 to hitting .800 this year."

Ev Liebman, director of advocacy for New Jersey Citizen Action, said, "We believe taking money out of politics is one of the most necessary and critical reforms for our state and is in fact the reform that makes all other reforms possible."

The clean elections program aims to rid legislative campaigns of the large donations from political action committees, unions, corporations and political parties that bankroll most races. Donations from those sources are off-limits to clean election candidates, who are eligibie instead for generous state grants.

So far this year, the program has distributed $3.8 million to candidates. Almost $3.2 million of that has gone to the 14th Legislative District covering parts of Middlesex and Mercer counties; it gets more money because power there is split between the two parties. The three Republicans and three Democrats competing for one Senate and two Assembly seats have each gotten $526,375 in state funding.

The experimental program has a total budget of $7.7 million, including the costs of administering and publicizing it.

Roberts said those costs need to be cut before the program is expanded to ail 40 legisiative districts, which he said might not happen by the next Assembly races in 2009.

"A basic mistake that might be the end of clean elections in New Jersey would be to overreach," Roberts said. He said he is "open to the broadest possible expansion" but wants to talk to other lawmakers about how many districts should be part of the program in 2009.

"I think we go from three to a very substantial number," Roberts said.

William Schluter, a former Republican state senator who supports the clean elections program, said it can only achieve its goal by going statewide, but it is "not essential" for that to happen by 2009.

"Intellectually, it would make sense to do it (expand the program statewide) if it can be done, but politically it might not be abie to be done," Schiuter said.

But Assembiywoman Aiison Littell McHose (R-Sussex), who is running for re-election as a "clean" candidate in one of the test districts, said it is "not fair" either to voters or candidates to implement the program in some iegislative districts, but not others.

"You can't do this around the state in a sporadic way," McHose said. "This is all or nothing, in my mind."

Copyright 2007 The Star-Ledger

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