The Times, Trenton

After A Short Time-Out

The Times of Trenton — Wednesday, September 10, 2008

BY PHYLLIS SALOWE-KAYE AND DAVID DONNELLY

After a short time-out, opponents of cleaning up politics in New Jersey crowed about Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts' announcement that the state would temporarily suspend its Fair and Clean Elections pilot program. The successful public campaign financing experiment had been on track to expand into additional state Assembly races in 2009, and for the first time, would have covered candidates running in primaries.

The opponents of Clean Elections are celebrating too soon. While Roberts' announcement was both disappointing and premature, the need for the program has never been greater. Voters want government to be more accountable to them, not to wealthy special interests.

Speaker Roberts' hesitancy was, in our view, an unnecessarily hasty response to two court decisions – one in Arizona on a similar law, and the other from the U.S. Supreme Court on a similar, but substantially different election matter. Neither decision, though, challenged the constitutionality of coupling voluntary public financing of political campaigns with strict spending limits, as the Fair and Clean Elections pilot program does.

The Arizona case is important to watch. That statewide public campaign financing system, which has proved successful over four election cycles, is similar in struc ture to New Jersey's pilot program. Candidates who demonstrate pub lic support for their candidacy by raising a large number of small qualifying contributions receive limited public money to run their campaigns. Since it is a voluntary system, candidates are not re quired to participate. If a nonparti cipating candidate or an outside group exceeds the spending of the Clean Elections candidate, he or she receives additional funding to respond to the attacks.

That final provision – called "rescue" or "fair fight" funds – is what U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver in Arizona ruled unconstitutional. But she refused to immediately eliminate it for this election cycle, arguing instead that to do so would place too much chaos into the candidacies and the elections.

Assemblyman Roberts says legal experts need to sort out the issue raised in the Arizona case. "In terms of enacting legislation to continue New Jersey's Clean Elections pilot program in 2009, the federal courts have imposed obstacles that are insurmountable given the time frame," he said in a written statement. "Instead of rushing to find stopgap solutions, Clean Elections simply needs a time-out."

There's no doubt that it's an important provision. But as more and more candidates opt into a public financing system – as in Maine, where roughly 85 percent do – the less important the provision becomes. In response to the Arizona decision, Assemblyman Roberts could have called on advo cates and lawmakers to come up with a different way to structure the rescue provision. There is no shortage of policy options to review and debate.

That's why this speaker-whistled time-out ought to be a short one. Advocates and lawmakers ought to get right to work as soon as possible to address how the court cases truly challenge the New Jersey program. There's too much good in this approach to do anything else. In short, Clean Elections works.

Counting New Jersey, seven states and two cities have enacted their own version of Clean Elections. Some have implemented Clean Elections for virtually all offices, such as Arizona, while others have tested the waters, such as New Jersey's pilot program in three legislative districts.

Connecticut held its first Clean Elections primary last month. More than 85 percent of candidates participated in its public financing system. In Arizona, 9 out of 11 statewide officeholders ran and won with Clean Elections and, in Maine, 84 percent of its state Legislature candidates have run and won under its program.

Clean Elections candidates forgo dialing for dollars, holding $1,000-a-plate dinners for wealthy donors and cutting deals with well- paid lobbyists representing corporate and other special interests. Instead, they spend their time discussing the issues with voters in their districts, and if victorious, take office free of pledges made to moneyed interests.

Isn't that a worthwhile program to figure out how to expand and continue, particularly in New Jersey? We think so.

When courts issue decisions that erect challenges to imple menting important public policy matters, the response ought not to be to throw up one's hands and walk away. To do so on this matter would be to leave the political system strangled by big money and ordinary voters on the sidelines. The best response is to roll up our sleeves and get to work to craft policy options and build the political support necessary to advance the Clean Elections program.

That's what we intend to do.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye is the executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a leading proponent of Clean Elections in New Jersey. David Donnelly is the national campaigns di rector of Public Campaign Action Fund, a Washington group dedicated to passing public financing. Donnelly is a resident of Roosevelt, N.J.

Copyright 2008 The Times of Trenton

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