The Times, Trenton

Let People Vote On Clean Elections?

The Times of Trenton — Monday, June 16, 2008

Bill Schluter wants the Legislature to let the people of New Jersey vote this fall on whether to launch a full-scale Clean Elections program next year that would offer public funds to qualifying candidates for state office if they turn down large private contributions and cap their campaign spending.

The former Republican state senator and independent candidate for governor says it's time to stop inching toward the goal with experimental efforts every two years, as the state has been doing.

And he thinks the people would go for it, despite New Jersey's precarious financial position, if they can be sold on the premise that public financing would reduce lawmakers' dependence on big special-interest campaign contributions and create opportunities for more citizens to run for elective office.

Schluter may be right. It's unlikely, though, that the State House politicians will let us find out. As they've shown often – on issues from Initiative and Refendum to the Citizens' Tax Convention to borrowing without the constitutionally required voter approval – they much prefer to make policy decisions themselves rather than trust them to the voters.

Nevertheless, it's an intriguing proposal. Schluter put it on the table last week at an Assembly hearing on A100, a bill that would create a new Clean Elections pilot program for the 2009 Assembly races – but in only eight of New Jersey's 40 legislative districts. The bill's greatest virtue is that primaries would be included for the first time, a condition that political reformers all agree is an absolute must.

Under A100, 2009 would be the third consecutive election with a test of Clean Elections. The first test, in 2005, applied to only two districts and was a failure because the qualifying requirements were too stringent. The requirements were eased, and the second pilot program, in 2007, applied to three districts and was generally pronounced a success.

The trouble, as Schluter sees it, is that continuing to conduct pilot programs with a few districts added each time postpones the benefits of Clean Elections indefinitely and makes poor use of the public funds that are committed to it.

"Many believe that the two pilot programs of 2005 and 2007 have given us all the information needed to devise and enter into a full statewide Clean Elections system," he told the Assembly State Government Committee. "Yet no one seems willing to take a leap of that significance and magnitude."

His testimony underscored a perennial disagreement among reformers in New Jersey over strategy. How little or how much reform is acceptable? Is it better to take whatever incremental improvement the politicians will allow, and hope for eventual success? Or demand full reform now, knowing that it's a long shot?

The incrementalists include Sen. Bill Baroni, R-Hamilton, a dedicated member of the Legislature's reform caucus, who ran as a Clean Elections candidate in 2007 and served on a bipartisan committee to draft the provisions that are in A100. Baroni is pleased that legislative leaders are willing to support a renewal of Clean Elections next year and extend it to primaries.

"The march toward a statewide Clean Elections program is continuing," Baroni told me a few weeks ago. "It's not as fast as I would want, but given the constraints of the state budget – and given the constraints of people who oppose the program altogether – we're taking incremental but noticeable and dramatic steps forward."

But Schluter thinks it's time to go all out.

He urged the Assembly committee to "craft a proposal for a permanent, 40-district Clean Elections program which applies to all legislators for both primary and general elections, and submit this proposal to the voters at referendum in November 2008 for an up-or-down vote."

Such a proposal would be supported by the many public-interest groups that have backed the principle of Clean Elections, Schluter predicted. The public "would become knowledgeable and, presumably, engaged" through full discussion of the issue in the media and via a strong public-information campaign. And November's presidential election should produce a big turnout that would be "ideal."

"Certainly, this referendum would be a clear indication of how serious New Jerseyans are about reform," he said. "By putting this issue on the ballot, the public will have the opportunity to decide if paying a reasonable amount to remove special-interest money from campaigns – thereby saving the extra cost that vendors, contractors and professional service organizations charge the state – is a worthwhile investment.

"When put to a vote in both Maine and Arizona, the public answered with a resounding YES. The essence of this strategy is that the public, not the Legislature, would give the program its blessing and would make the tough decision of approving the expenditure necessary for implementation."

Covering all 40 districts next year would put an end to the controversial job of picking pilot districts, Schluter said. Under A100, the task would be accomplished through a supposedly bipartisan arrangement, but it could well produce the same kind of partisan dissatisfaction that followed the selection of Baroni's 14th District for the 2007 pilot over the neighboring 12th District.

A favorable referendum vote would make Clean Elections permanent, applying to all legislative races beginning in 2009. "This is especially important for 2011, which is a year of legislative redistricting, a very contentious process," Schluter said. "It is hard to imagine how the Legislature could successfully address this issue in 2011 if the program and its standards were not already in place."

Schluter ended his pitch with a challenge. "If Clean Elections is such a good idea with so much public benefit, let's take the plunge," he said. "Why procrastinate with halfway measures and more pilots? For those who are afraid that a full statewide Clean Elections initiative is so bold that the people will be offended, they should take comfort in knowing that a referendum will be used to 'let the people decide.'"

Copyright 2008 The Times of Trenton

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