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Dispatches: Time To Go Full Throttle

The Princeton Packet / PacketOnline — Friday, June 20, 2008

By Hank Kalet, Managing Editor

"You can experiment yourself to death with pilot programs. This program can only succeed if it is given a chance to go full throttle in all districts." – former state Sen. William Schluter, in an interview on Tuesday

The good news is that the state's clean elections program will likely continue in 2009.

The bad news is that the program remains in what can only be described as the experimental phase.

The Assembly State Government Committee has reviewed the latest version of the clean elections program, a system of voluntary public financing for legislative candidates, and sent it to the Assembly Budget Committee.

If approved by the Budget Committee and then by the full Assembly, it will go to the state Senate for consideration.

The legislation expands on the 2005 and 2007 clean elections pilots. The 2007 program, which provided public funding for candidates in three districts, improved on a 2005 program that many considered a failure. The 2007 program featured a streamlined qualifying procedure – 400 $10 contributions to qualify, 800 to receive full funding, as opposed to a mix of $10 and $30 donations – that allowed all but three candidates of the 20 on the ballot to earn public funding. The new legislation would improve the program further, though not nearly enough. It would cover eight legislative districts for both the primary and general elections and provide money for members of small parties like the Greens and Libertarians.

The legislation, however, does not go far enough. It leaves unaffiliated independent candidates to get by on half the money other candidates get – an unconscionable disparity. This will leave hopefuls who either want to run on their own or who have no ideological connection to any of the registered parties to battle against not only the difficulty of running an insurgent campaign lacking institutional support but against the funding disparity, as well.

In addition, the new per-candidate allocation – $75,000 for the general election and $75,000 for the primary (which can be carried into the general) – may not be high enough to provide incentives for some candidates – especially those in competitive districts like the 14th, which includes South Brunswick – to participate. That's one reason that Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Plainsboro, who wrote the original legislation creating the 2005 pilot, has yet to add her name as a sponsor. She said that districts like the 14th, which are highly competitive, need more funding to ensure that candidates can get their messages out, whether by using cable television and radio, print ads or mailings.

"If the program is to succeed, it must have a funding level that would make people want to participate because it is voluntary and will always be voluntary," she said Tuesday.

At the same time, she said she understands that the state's budget constraints – a structural deficit that has made balancing the state budget difficult – limited the ability to expand the size of the program.

"I think the Legislature wants to continue the program, but (the leadership) didn't think the public would have an appetite for big increases" in spending, she said.

Part of the problem is that state legislators should not be trusted to reform an electoral process that protects them. While reformers like state Sen. Bill Baroni and Ms. Greenstein have been willing to challenge the status quo on campaign finance, most of the rest of the folks who populate the Legislature have not, or have used the "sausage-making" process, as Sen. Baroni calls the legislative give and take, to water down clean elections.

That's one reason that former state Sen. William Schluter, who chaired the New Jersey Citizens' Clean Elections Commission that reviewed the original 2005 pilot, wants the state to stop fooling around and implement clean elections in all 40 legislative districts. Mr. Schluter, a Republican from Pennington who ran as an independent candidate for governor in 2001, said the expansion of the program would create the kind of competition that states like Arizona and Maine witnessed when they instituted their own clean-elections programs.

"One of the failings of this particular version of clean elections is that it does not use the political marketplace and the dynamics of choice," he said. "The experience in Maine and Arizona is that if you have choice available to everybody, you are more likely to get participation."

Sen. Baroni agrees that the program offers only incremental reform, but he says that the political environment restricts what's possible. He called the current legislation a "series of compromises" designed to maintain support from enough legislators to keep the program alive. He said there has been organized opposition to clean elections from former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, an outspoken conservative who has called the program "welfare for politicians," that might negatively influence the debate. "I think Bill is right," the Hamilton Republican said Tuesday, "but given the environment we are in right now, while it is not good enough, it continues to be a good step forward. It's not good enough, but we're getting there."

The question, in the end, is whether we are getting there fast enough.

Hank Kalet is managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press.

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