Philadelphia Inquirer

Give Plan On Elections A Chance

Criticism of a proposal for public funding doesn't take into account N.J.'s unique circumstances or the need for candidates to earn campaign funds

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Thursday, August 25, 2005

Criticism of a proposal for public funding doesn't take into account N.J.'s unique circumstances or the need for candidates to earn campaign funds.

The Inquirer's recent editorial criticizing the contribution criteria for New Jersey's Clean Elections pilot program ("Clean Elections in N.J.: Lower the threshold for small donors," Aug. 21) failed to articulate the reasons why the eligibility standard for public financing was set so high in the Garden State.

"Clean elections" are publicly financed legislative campaigns. The idea behind clean elections is to take special-interest money out of the political process so that our legislators do not feel beholden to large contributors or spend most of their time trying to raise special-interest money. Last year, the New Jersey Legislature - in a bipartisan effort - became the first legislative body in the nation to authorize clean elections. (These progressive programs were established in other states via initiative and referendum.)

Clean elections have been successful in Maine and Arizona, which is why New Jersey largely modeled its program upon the systems established in those two states. We did not, however, create a carbon copy of the eligibility standards in those states.

Right now, New Jersey clean-elections candidates must amass 1,000 donations of $5 and 500 donations of $30 to be eligible for public financing. These thresholds are higher than what is in place in Maine and Arizona, but they should be achievable.

We did not set up a system to fail, as The Inquirer contends. We set a system with taxpayer safeguards and a review process for making fine-tuned adjustments that would ensure long-term success.

There are sound reasons why New Jersey should start its program with tougher qualification standards than in Maine and Arizona. Maine, for example, has a population of only 1.27 million compared with New Jersey's population of almost 8.5 million. Whereas each member of the Maine House of Representatives represents only 8,443 constituents per district, ranking Maine 45th in the nation, each member of the New Jersey General Assembly represents 105,179 constituents per district, ranking us seventh in the nation according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The most significant contrast of all between Maine and New Jersey is that each clean-elections candidate in a House race in Maine qualifies for less than $4,400 in public financing for a contested race and less than $1,800 for uncontested races. If all candidates qualify in a New Jersey district, they can get up to $100,000 each in public financing because of the high cost of campaigns here.

Arizona is significantly (albeit not as drastically) different from New Jersey in both total population and constituents per House district. However, the most critical difference between Arizona and here is that Arizona's clean candidates qualify for only $18,000 for a general election (and $12,000 for a primary election), compared with $100,000 in New Jersey.

To criticize the Garden State for not following the same exact qualifying criteria for clean elections in Maine and Arizona is like comparing lobsters and cactus to tomatoes and blueberries.

It would be difficult for New Jersey legislators to justify making the significant investment in public dollars that we made – even on a trial basis – in support of clean elections without ensuring that candidates work hard to qualify for public financing.

Receiving large sums of taxpayer money to run a campaign should not be an exercise in convenience; it should be earned by the candidates and their supporters through grassroots work. Only then will the public have faith that its money is not being wasted by fringe or non-serious candidates who run for office.

That said, clean elections in New Jersey is only a pilot program; by no means is anyone suggesting that this year's qualifying criteria should remain the same in the future.

If The Inquirer is as concerned about the infiltration of special-interest money in elections as it professes, then it should spend less time criticizing the program's problems and spend more time promoting its ideals. One way The Inquirer could accomplish this is by dedicating space to regularly ask voters in the Sixth Legislative District to participate in this program. The Courier-Post of Cherry Hill is already doing this.

There will be a time and a place to look back and identify ways to improve this worthy experiment. But the priority right now should be to assist the Democrats and Republicans who are trying to qualify for this program and make clean elections a success.

Joseph J. Roberts Jr.
(D., Camden)
Majority Leader
New Jersey Assembly

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