New Jersey Herald

McHose Wants To Study Clean Election Funding

Group would answer question: How will state pay for it?

New Jersey Herald — Monday, October 2, 2007

By BILL WICHERT

With her Democratic opponents in the 24th Legislative District races calling for a statewide public campaign financing program, Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose, R-Sussex, is looking for an answer to what she believes is the most critical question: how will the state pay for it?

A day after the qualifying period for "clean elections" money ended, McHose said Monday she is developing legislation to establish a commission that would analyze the costs associated with going statewide and to put such a program before voters in two years. A critic of spending public money on political campaigns, McHose reluctantly joined the program with Senate candidate Steve Oroho and Assembly candidate Gary Chiusano.

"I have voted against this bill twice in the past," said McHose, who is looking to hold onto the Assembly seat she has filled since 2003. "I would continue to vote no if a funding mechanism is not better explained."

The 24th Legislative District, which includes all of Sussex County and parts of Hunterdon and Morris counties, is one of three districts selected to participate in the "New Jersey Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Project."

If candidates in the 24th Legislative District received at least 400 contributions of $10 each, or $4,000, they would qualify for $46,000 in public dollars for a total campaign fund of $50,000. At the maximum 800 $10 contributions, or $8,000, matching public funds bring each candidate to $100,000. Contributions must come from registered voters in the legislative district. With the exception of up to $10^000 in "seed money" from registered voters in the state, candidates cannot use any other campaign funds.

While the Republican candidates have each qualified for the See maximum amount of funds, Democratic Senate candidate Ed Selby and his Assembly running mates Toni Zimmer and Pat Walsh were still considerably behind in the days before the qualifying period ended on Sunday. By Wednesday, the Democrats' donation levels were: Selby, $5,400; Zimmer, $5,040; and Walsh, $4,910.

By the same time, 15 candidates in the 24th, 14th and 37th Legislative Districts had received $3.8 million in public dollars, including $424,120 to the six candidates in the 24th Legislative District. One preliminary estimate by the New Jersey Citizen Action, the state's largest citizen watchdog coalition, for expanding the program statewide is $100 million.

One of McHose's proposals is establishing a commission to study the cost and potential funding sources for a "clean elections" program in general and primary legislative elections as well as county elections.

That commission would be composed of the state treasurer, the executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), a majority member of the Senate and the Assembly, a minority member of both houses and five public members, McHose said. One member of the public would be appointed by the governor with two appointments each by the Senate and the Assembly. The commission would issue reports to both political parties no later than January 2009.

In November 2009, McHose is proposing putting the program on the ballot as a non-binding referendum for voters to determine its future. Any convicted felons, elected officials under indictment and individuals who have unsatisfied tax liens would be barred from receiving public funds under McHose's proposal.

As part of the 2005 "clean elections" pilot project, the New Jersey Citizens' Clean Elections Commission was formed to evaluate that year's program and make recommendations for 2007, but no such commission was established for the current program, ELEC Executive Director Frederick Herrmann said. ELEC is expected to file a report by March with legislative leaders to provide a factual overview of how the program went, but not make any recommendations for the future, Herrmann said.

A statewide clean elections program is one of the initiatives proposed by the Democratic candidates in their recent "anti-corruption plan." The program will produce cost savings in the long run by taking special interests out of the electoral process, and paying for the program would come after reviewing state finances, Walsh said.

"It would be taken from the state budget and it would have to be part of a balanced budget," Walsh said. "We spend money on things we shouldn't. Property taxes and corruption are, in my opinion, two things that need to be fixed. Clean elections takes a step toward doing that."

Walsh, Selby and Zimmer also have proposed a complete ban on dual office-holding, which expands on the policy approved by the legislature that would allow sitting legislators to hold onto all positions they hold by Feb. 1, 2008. State Democratic Chairman Joseph Cryan, who supports a total ban, said he expects legislators to revisit that issue.

"It's going to get serious consideration by the legislature," Cryan said. "I think my colleagues are going to look at it in a different light."

After Cryan appeared at a Vernon Democratic fundraiser Sunday, Sussex County Republican Chairman Rich Zeoli criticized him for the increased taxes and higher spending in Trenton. "Under Joe Cryan and the "Trenton Democrats, Sussex County residents have been hit with 94 new tax increases. That's 94 in just five years," Zeoli said.

Cryan said the Democrats' focus has been on providing property tax relief across the state.

"The vast majority of people in Sussex County got property tax relief as a result of Democratic policies," Cryan said.

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