Split Emerges On Clean Elections

CourierPostOnline — Thursday, August 7, 2008

Gannett State Bureau

New Jersey's publicly funded elections haven't severed the ties between special interests and politicians, nor improved public perception of lawmakers, opponents of the state's Clean Elections program said Wednesday.

Touting a survey that skewed the numbers in their favor, opponents urged legislative leaders to forget about the program and focus instead on reform such as ending pay-to-play or legislative leadership accounts, which gives leadership great sway by controlling a majority of campaign dollars with looser rules.

Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose, R-Sussex, questioned why Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, D-Camden, was pursuing a program that costs taxpayer dollars while the other measures have a stronger link to curbing corruption.

"I'm saying he's a hypocrite because he's not looking to police himself, but yet he wants to police the rest of us," McHose said.

A spokesman for Roberts said he plans to reform pay-to-play in the fall.

"Alison is a right-wing special interest puppet who is not terribly bright and doesn't stand for anything, so of course she's against cleaning up elections in New Jersey," Roberts spokesman Derek Roseman said via e-mail.

Clean Elections, in which candidates qualify for public funding by raising nominal contributions from constituents instead of large sums from special interests, has been run in selected districts in the last two elections.

A proposal for 2009 would expand the program to up to eight districts and include primaries, but its prospects were dimmed after a legal opinion by the Office of Legislative Services said major components were unconstitutional. That opinion came after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a federal law that loosened limits on contributions to congressional candidates running against wealthy self-financed opponents.

Supporters plan to meet this month to salvage the program, but opponents said Thursday they shouldn't bother.

"The Clean Elections program is mortally wounded," Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, said. "It should have been defeated before that decision came down. But now with that decision, it is an intractable program."

Clean Elections opponents were buoyed by a mail-in survey by the Center for Competitive Politics that found many of the constituents who contributed $10 to Clean Elections candidates were members of special interests groups such as the New Jersey Education Association, Communications Workers of America or National Rifle Association.

The survey also revealed that constituents in clean districts didn't have an improved opinion of their elected leaders.

While the survey makes it appear that 23 to 33 percent of contributors were members of the NJEA, the center ignored that more than half the survey respondents listed no special interest.

"It actually would have made more sense," said Sean Parnell, the group's president, of including those who listed no affiliation, but "The numbers still generally convey the same information."

The survey found no evidence of organized pushes by groups to qualify candidates.

Roberts, in a prepared statement, said he remains committed to the program.

"Although the conservative Supreme Court dealt Clean Elections a serious blow, this unscientific "survey' and its results are not persuasive at all," Roberts said.

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