By Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. Concerned about government corruption and the rising costs of political campaigns, New Jersey

By Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr.

Concerned about government corruption and the rising costs of political campaigns, New Jersey tested the waters of public financing for legislative races through a Clean Elections pilot project in the 2005 Assembly elections.

Now the state is at the threshold of taking a second crack at employing public financing in legislative contests. Legislation has advanced to reauthorize another Clean Elections trial run in this November’s general elections. The measure is scheduled for a Senate vote on Monday and could be moved to the Governor’s desk for his signature as early as next Thursday.

The stakes are too high for New Jersey not to continue on a course toward one day having all of its legislative races funded through public financing. If the state is to ever address its image and corruption problems, Clean Elections need to be given every opportunity possible to proceed and succeed.

The prospect of public financing in legislative races is too good to lose.

Clean Elections are investments in democracy. By providing public financing to candidates, special-interest money is taken out of the political process so legislators will not feel beholden to large contributors and their agendas.

Under Clean Elections, qualified candidates who agree to forgo large private contributions and follow strict spending limits receive public financing for their campaigns. This frees candidates from having to chase campaign donations from big-money special interests and lobbyists. This enables candidates ample opportunity to conduct their campaigns with the interest of their constituents as their top priority. The availability of public money also helps to level the political playing field for nontraditional candidates like women and minorities.

By any standard of measure, the results of the 2005 Clean Elections pilot program fell far short of successful. A survey conducted that October by Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling found that less than one-quarter of likely voters in the two designated pilot districts that year knew that Clean Elections races were taking place in their areas.

Candidates that year also had difficulty raising the number of smaller donations needed to qualify for state matching funds and they were frustrated by some of the well-intentioned rules and safeguards that were put in place to conduct the program. In the end, only one of the five sets of candidates running in the two eligible districts qualified for public financing.

After the 2005 trial run, a nine-member bipartisan panel €” the New Jersey Citizens’ Clean Elections Commission, headed by former state Senator William Schluter €” held 13 public meetings around the state to examine the pilot program and to make recommendations for a refined and expanded test this year. Subsequently, a variety of legislators proposed competing legislative measures for a reauthorized Clean Elections pilot program.

To sort through the various proposals and reports, a bipartisan Assembly working group was formed last September to develop consensus legislation that could pass both legislative houses and be signed into law. The working group consisted of Assembly members Louis Greenwald (D-Camden) and Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth), both of whom gained first-hand experience as candidates in the 2005 Clean Elections demonstration project; and Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) and Bill Baroni (D-Mercer), both of whom served with distinction as members of the Clean Elections review panel.

The task force’s recommended Clean Elections approach seeks to build upon the 2005 program by expanding it to three districts €” including a competitive “split” district which has legislators of both parties €” while also including Senate candidates. The measure (A-100) would further ease the ability of qualified candidates to receive public financing, improve voter outreach efforts, and expand the ways contributors can support candidates seeking to run under the Clean Elections banner.

The easiest approach in the wake of the setbacks of the 2005 pilot program would have been to give up on Clean Elections in its entirety. The Legislature, however, would be wrong to throw up its hands and surrender to the status-quo conventions of financing elections through special interest contributions.

Some critics have pushed to include primary elections in the 2007 program. It is not an idea without merit, but state election officials have testified that it is too late this year to satisfactorily implement Clean Elections in time for the June primary. Moreover, we must ensure the reformed system will work before we extend it. The current legislation would require the inclusion of primary elections in 2009 €” so long as we see marked improvement in 2007.

The time for action is now. Election season is now upon us and decisions need to be made in short order about which three legislative districts should be designated for Clean Elections financing this year.

The future of Clean Elections should not be in doubt. The fight for public financing in legislative races must continue to go forward.

New Jersey needs a Clean Elections system more than ever to ensure that its elected leaders are held accountable to taxpayers rather than murky special interests seeking contracts and favors at the public’s expense.