Public Funding Of N.J. Elections Will Be Tested

CourierPostOnline — Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Gannett State Bureau

TRENTON — Top Democrats in the state Legislature Tuesday unveiled plans to experiment with publicly financed elections in selected districts, hoping, they say, to extricating special-interest cash from political races.

The idea appeared as part of a 25-point reform package.

The Democrats, admitting special-interest contributions have an undue influence on election outcomes, called the experiment a pilot program for "Clean Elections."

Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, D-West New York, and Majority Leader Joe Roberts, D-Camden, explained the plan this way:

Two districts, one currently held by Republicans and one controlled by Democrats, would be selected for a pilot program in the 2005 general election.

"To qualify as a clean-elections candidate, participants must meet a threshold amount of small contributions raised from a large number of donors," according to a statement on the idea released by the lawmakers. Once qualified, they would receive matching state money pegged to amounts spent in previous elections in their districts.

Candidates opting out of the program would, according to a statement from Sires and Roberts, "forfeit their allocations to participating candidates."

Candidates would be required to participate in at least two public debates and their status as "clean" would appear on their campaign literature and by their names on the ballot.

After the 2005 election, the Democratic proposal calls for a commission to assess the experiment. The commission could authorize expanding the pilot program to two more districts in 2007. The idea beyond that is up for debate.

Little opposition to the plan arose immediately after the Tuesday announcement.

State Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Clinton Township, Hunterdon, who is the Senate Minority Leader, said he had no comment on it, though he criticized the overall 25-point plan as unable to restore public confidence in politicians. "It's woefully incomplete," Lance said.

Roberts and Sires said the campaign money would come, in part, from raising fees on lobbyists, from $325 to $500 a year. Neither lawmaker estimated how much the increased fees would collect. There were 578 registered lobbyists during the third quarter of 2003, the most recent ELEC report available. Based on that number, the amount raised would be $101,150.

That figure is less than the $114,432 state Sen. Nicholas Asselta, R-Vineland, who ran unopposed, spent last fall, and it's just over one-third what Sen. John Adler, D-Cherry Hill, spent in a noncompetitive race, according to post-election reports to the Election Law Enforcement Commission.

If public financing occurs as envisioned, voters in Monmouth and Middlesex counties look, according to a description by Roberts, to be well-suited to join South Jersey voters in becoming the vanguard.

Roberts had said the plan would be tried in what politicians call "competitive" districts.

"(It) should not be districts where outcome is a forgone conclusion, where either party has an overwhelming advantage. Nor should it be, if the goal is to encourage candidates to endorse the idea, the most competitive and targeted. (It should be) districts held by one party where the other party is withing legitimate striking distance," Roberts said.

The 2005 races will all be for Assembly seats. And relatively close Assembly races have been in Cape May County's 1st District, in the 3rd District covering parts of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, where conservative Democratic Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew has held off challenges in a traditionally conservative GOP area.

Others are in the 12th and 13th districts in Monmouth and Middlesex and parts of Mercer counties, where assemblyman Michael Panter and Robert Morgan are newcomer Democrats in 12, and where GOP Assemblymen Joseph Azzolina and Samuel Thompson narrowly won last November.

No sooner had the public-campaign plan been floated than the two rookie lawmakers from Monmouth County stepped forward.

"I'd volunteer," Morgan said.

His district colleague, Michael Panter, replied, "It's certainly something that I'd consider."

Copyright 2004 Courier-Post

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