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N.J. Funds 'Cleaner' Campaigns

Home News Tribune — Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Associated Press Writer

TRENTON — Infamous for rough-and-tumble politics and government corruption, New Jersey is vying to clean up its act.

After a failed effort in 2005, legislative candidates in three districts will fund their campaigns using taxpayer cash – not money donated by special interest groups. Their money comes from the state budget, not donations.

Supporters hope New Jersey's effort will allow candidates to focus on issues, not fund-raising, and push the corruption-plagued state closer to having a statewide publicly funded campaign program, as Arizona, Connecticut and Maine have done.

"Public financing can strengthen the democratic process by keeping special interest money out," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., D-Camden.

"We are moving the reform agenda forward, taking one more step toward making fundamental change in the way we do politics in New Jersey," said Vic De Luca of government watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action.

This is New Jersey's second effort at public-campaign financing for legislators. A 2005 effort sputtered when the program proved too complicated, but this year, 15 of the 20 eligible candidates have qualified. The others still have until Sept. 30.

The program is being tried in the 14th, 24th and 37th districts. Each district elects two Assembly members and a senator.

The 15 candidates qualified by collecting $10 donations from at least 400 in-district voters. They will be deemed a "clean elections candidate" on the November ballot and allowed to include a 250-word personal statement on sample ballots.

So far, the qualifying candidates have received about $3.57 million total in public money. By accepting the money, the candidates are banned from accepting donations from special-interest groups.

"This legislation creates a program that hopefully will start the process of weeding big money out of the political process," said Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Mercer, who is seeking a 14th District Senate seat and supports the program.

In 2005, when the 80 Assembly seats and the governor's office were on the ballot, the leading contributors to state candidates were lawyers, who gave $2.21 million, and labor unions, which gave $2.2 million, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Assembly candidates raised a record $38.1 million total that year, according the the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Senate and Assembly candidates raised $32.2 million just for this year's June primary, with about $18.2 million of raised by Senate candidates, ELEC said.

Not everyone is pleased with the program.

Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose, who represents the traditionally Republican 24th District in northwestern New Jersey, is participating because her district was chosen for it, but she's not a supporter. She said the program is designed to make Democrats competitive in a Republican district.

"We're the guinea pigs and if we don't participate the Democrats will just get more of our money," she said.

Assemblyman Richard Merkt, R-Morris, has lauded the program's goal, but decried the cost. The Legislature budgeted about $7 million for the program.

And Gregg M. Edwards, president of the Center for Policy Research of New Jersey, contends the law actually helps incumbents because it makes it impossible for a challenger to outspend a sitting legislator.

Copyright 2007 Home News Tribune

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