Asbury Park Press

Another Version Of "Clean Elections" Rolls Forward

Asbury Park Press — Friday, June 13, 2008

Gannett State Bureau

An Assembly panel approved a measure Thursday that would publicly fund primary and general election legislative campaigns in up to eight districts next year.

Clean Elections, in which candidates qualify for public funding by getting nominal contributions from constituents instead of special interest groups, has been tried in some New Jersey districts in 2005 and 2007 with complaints from even those who backed the concept.

Advocates' gripes to the Assembly State Government Committee, which endorsed the measure 4–1, were more fine-tuning than wholesale disagreement, such as panning a clause requiring candidates to run as teams, giving an advantage to party-backed candidates.

"The slate requirement serves as a protection for incumbents," said Anne Ruach Nicolas of the New Jersey League of Women Voters.

Others questioned whether the proposal's plan to reduce the subsidy available to candidates provides sufficient money for races in competitive races.

"I'd be less than honest if I said the $150,000 limit that's been set in the bill is adequate in any competitive district," said Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, who received more than $600,000 in public funds last year.

Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, R-Monmouth, whose delegation spent less than $1 million to defeat Democrats who spent more than $5 million in a traditional campaign, disagreed.

"I'm living proof that we were heard for that dollar amount," Casagrande said.

Critics said publicly funded elections don't meet their goals such as increasing competition, eliminating money's corrupting influence and empowering citizens.

"There is a public perception. I don't believe this is correct, and I'm hoping through this process we restore public confidence," said bill sponsor Louis Greenwald, D-Camden. "But the belief is that if you receive a contribution from the NJEA, it has somehow bought your vote for a $2,000 contribution."

That, said Sean Parnell, of the Center for Competitive Politics, proves that the program only deals in perception, not reality.

"Essentially, he said it's about improving perception," Parnell said. "And, essentially, that turns this into a multi-million dollar public relations program."

Worse, said Gregg M. Edwards, of the Center for Policy and Research, is that candidates running unopposed could qualify for public funding. "That's an insult to taxpayers," he said.

Assemblywoman Alison McHose, R-Sussex, a 2007 participant who opposes the program, said she wants proof that Clean Elections would save money, particularly when it seeks to spend roughly $8 million in a tight budget times.

"There is no empirical evidence or any other kind of evidence that this program works, especially when we're still waiting for the balance sheet that Assemblywoman McHose called for us that would show us how Clean Elections would actually save the taxpayers of New Jersey any money," said Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, who cast the lone vote against the plan.

"You save money because the vendors and the contractors and the special service organizations do not add that (political contributions) into their cost of doing business with the state," countered former Sen. William Schluter.

Copyright 2008 Asbury Park Press

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