'Clean Elections' Trial Run Passes N.J. Legislature

NJ.com — Friday, June 11, 2004

By Terrence Dopp

TRENTON — The Legislature on Thursday approved a trial run of publicly funded elections in New Jersey, one of several ethics reform bills approved.

Under the plan, Assembly races in two of New Jersey's 40 legislative districts - each deemed competitive territory - would host the pilot program in the 2005 election. The program would be expanded in the 2007 contest and later evaluated for its effectiveness.

Only Maine and Arizona have the funding schemes; in both states voters side-stepped the legislature through public initiatives.

"There is no silver bullet when (dealing with) campaign finance reform. No panacea. We just have to move forward as aggressively as we can," said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts, D-5 of Camden, sponsor of the bill, dubbed the "Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Act."

"Public funding of campaigns holds the greatest promise of really confronting the issue."

The bill cleared the Assembly 52-18-9 and the Senate 26-11. The bill awaits the signature of Gov. James E. McGreevey.

Under the bill, political hopefuls will need to raise 1,000 $5 donations from citizens and 500 $30 donations. After meeting the threshold, they would be eligible to receive funding from the state, according to Roberts' measure.

The money they receive would come from an optional check-off box on state income tax returns.

No districts have yet been selected.

But some Republicans opposed the measure, saying logging the 1,500 donations would prove impossible for political hopefuls.

Maine and Arizona require far less - 50 and 200, respectively.

Assemblyman Michael Doherty, R-Hunterdon/Warren, said urban Democrats would gain disproportionately under the election system because of higher levels of organized labor in their areas - making it easier to solicit 1,500 donations.

"The more I've heard about this bill, the less I like it. (Assembly) members in Democratic areas have a lot more union members and that's what you're going to see, union members looking at this as a $5 obligation," Doherty said. "This is a cynical manipulation of the system."

Those who pushed the reforms, New Jersey Citizen Action, said the concerns, while genuine, shouldn't justify abandoning the trial.

"We hope they won't prove insurmountable. But, fortunately, it's a test run so if it turns out they are too high they can be changed," Steve Bonime of Citizen Action said. "We're thrilled."

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