Can NJ's Publicly Financed Elections Be Saved?

Newsday — Monday, August 18, 2008


TRENTON, N.J. — In a place where running for statewide office can cost $1 million or more, a handful of New Jersey lawmakers are trying to find a way to salvage _ and expand _ a program to allow publicly financed campaigns.

Doing so has become especially important following a recent legal opinion that cast doubt on the constitutionality of parts of New Jersey's so-called "clean elections" program.

To prevent its failure, a group of lawmakers are meeting to propose changes to the program to keep it going.

"Our primary focus is to save clean elections," said Sen. Bill Baroni, R-Mercer, a chief architect of the plan to continue such programs. "Clean elections is an important part of stopping New Jersey's culture of corruption."

Such programs are meant to lessen, if not eliminate, the influence of special interests groups by allowing candidates to qualify for public money by collecting small donations from individual donors supplemented by taxpayer dollars. This is especially important in a state like New Jersey, sandwiched between two of the most expensive media markets in the country: New York and Philadelphia.

New Jersey has a clean elections program since 2005, and has had a gubernatorial matching-fund component since 1977. Several candidates have opted in, such as former Gov. Jim McGreevey and his 2001 opponent, Bret Schundler.

Around the country, Arizona, Connecticut and Maine all currently have clean elections programs.

Proponents say such an approach will remove or limit the potential for corruptive influences in the election process.

Opponents contend that the public should not be called upon to finance political campaigns, especially in lean economic times. They say its time to abandon the state's failed clean elections experiment, not expand it.

Trial versions of the program provided legislative candidates in select districts with public funds if they secure nominal contributions from donors. It also allowed participating candidates to receive "rescue" funds if they were challenged by a high-spending candidate or targeted by an issues-focused group, such as Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein was when an anti-gay marriage group tried to defeat the Mercer Democrat last year.

But a recent opinion by the state's Office of Legislative Services cast doubt on the legality of the rescue funds provision, throwing New Jersey's clean elections pilot into a tailspin. Without the rescue component, many candidates would not participate, said Baroni.

Legal experts disagree on the significance of the OLS opinion.

The Center for Competitive Politics agrees with OLS, which provides nonpartisan legal advice to the Legislature, while the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law disagrees.

The bipartisan legislative group hopes to fast-track a bill through the Legislature this fall that would provide public financing to more legislative candidates than ever, and would include primaries as well as general elections beginning in 2009.

That's something not everyone wants to see.

"We should cut spending and taxes rather than scramble to find ways to send taxpayer dollars to politicians and their consultants," said Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris County.

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