The Star-Ledger

'Clean Elections' Effort Gets Sidelined

Assembly speaker blames a federal ruling that bars 'rescue' funds to fight attack ads

The Star-Ledger — Wednesday, September 3, 2008

BY ROBERT SCHWANEBERG
Star-Ledger Staff

An experimental, taxpayer-funded "clean elections" program that was scheduled to expand for next year's Assembly races will instead be scrapped – at least for 2009 – because of a recent federal court ruling, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts said yesterday.

Roberts (D-Camden) cited a ruling late last week declaring unconstitutional a provision in Arizona's clean elections program that provides additional "rescue" funds so candidates can respond to attack ads by independent groups.

New Jersey's program has the same provision, and it provided an extra $100,000 to Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) last fall after she became the target of attack ads aired by a group with ties to President Bush. Greenstein won re-election by a comfortable margin.

Roberts said the ruling prohibiting such funds posed "insurmountable" obstacles to developing a workable program in time for next year's Assembly races.

"Instead of rushing to find stopgap solutions, 'clean elections' simply needs a time out," Roberts said.

By providing taxpayer funding, the program was intended to allow candidates to run on a level playing field with no money at all from special interests. Roberts, who has championed the concept, said in October the pilot program should be "substantially expanded" next year.

But the state's tight budget posed a challenge to expanding the program, which cost $5 million to run in just three of New Jersey's 40 legislative districts.

"Budget problems hung over everything," said Greenstein, one of five lawmakers advising Roberts on clean elections. She called the court ruling "the straw that broke the camel's back."

Greenstein said she would not participate in a clean elections program that did not provide enough money – whether through rescue funds or some other mechanism – to counter negative ads by independent groups.

"You have to have enough there so you can put some in reserve to respond when you're attacked," she said.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, was "very disappointed" by Roberts' decision.

"We need clean elections now more than ever to clean up the corruption that obviously exists here," she said.

Sean Parnell, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, said rescue funds "penalize political speech." The center, based in Alexandria, Va., recently issued a report criticizing New Jersey's clean elections program.

Parnell praised Roberts' decision "to end this expensive experiment."

Roberts' spokesman, Derek Roseman, said, "The speaker is hopeful that we might be able to see this program return for 2011, but what Congress or the courts do in the meantime to make that return possible remains to be seen."

Copyright 2008 The Star-Ledger

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