'Clean Elections' A Step Closer

CourierPostOnline — Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Gannett State Bureau

TRENTON — With a deadline fast approaching, legislation authorizing the 2007 installment of the publicly funded "clean elections" experiment was approved Monday by the Senate State Government Committee.

"We're racing the clock," said sponsor Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Lawrence, Mercer County, who expects the measure to be approved by the Senate budget committee in mid-February and the full Senate by the end of February. It has already been approved by the Assembly and would need a quick signature from Gov. Jon S. Corzine so legislative leaders can select three districts – a safe district for each party and one split district – by March 9.

Public financing, in which candidates forgo traditional special interest donations, was tried in two legislative districts in 2005. But only one of five pairs of candidates who had to raise a number of nominal contributions to qualify for public funding was able to meet the threshold, prompting lawmakers to revamp the rules.

The 2007 proposal would lower the number of qualifying contributions from 1,500 to 800. Donations would be $10 instead of a mix of $30 and $5. The bill would also allow "partially clean" candidates, as long as they get 400 donations.

Candidates certified "clean" this year would be eligible for up to $100,000 in public financing.

The measure was approved by the committee 4 to 1, with Sen. Leonard T. Connors Jr., R-Surf City, objecting to the fact the Senate hasn't passed a statewide ban on pay-to-play – the practice of trading lucrative government contracts for political donations. He also said the measure doesn't address what happens if a wealthy candidate self-finances an unclean campaign.

"Until we pass pay-to-play, the answer will always be "no' as far as I'm concerned," Connors said. "This bill might have merit after pay-to-play."

Turner, one of 20 Democrats whose inaction on the Senate floor blocked a vote on banning pay-to-play last week, said publicly funded elections would achieve the same result.

"People would be responding to the people who not only voted for them, but they would be providing the funding for them as well," Turner said. "So this would squeeze out those special interests who are looking to play because they're paying."

The 2007 proposal also aims to address another problem that plagued the project in 2005 – unfamiliarity among the voters. The measure includes $600,000 for the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission to promote the program.

ELEC Executive Director Frederick M. Herrmann called the deadlines "tight, but doable," saying the commission has been preparing under the assumption clean elections will occur this year.

The project would not apply to June's primary but includes a clause that it would apply to the 2009 primary if at least half of the two major party's candidates qualify this year.

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