Clean Elections Bill Clears Assembly Committee

By Jason Method, Staff Writer

TRENTON ? An effort to create "clean" state elections ? free of money from special interests ? needs some political bleach, good-government advocates argued Thursday. A bill that provides for publicly-funded state legislative elections in three districts next year passed a key Assembly committee, but not before it was opposed by the former chairman of a commission that had studied the initial 2005 Clean Elections pilot project. "This bill is not a good bill," declared former state Sen. William E. Schluter, who had led the Citizen's Clean Election Commission. "It is counterproductive and does not (help) get the money out of politics." The bill is scheduled for a full Assembly vote Monday. The Assembly State Government committee approved the bill by a 4 to 0 vote while Assemblywoman Amy H. Handlin, R-Monmouth, abstained. The measure has not yet been introduced in the state Senate. The Clean Elections program is modeled after campaign laws in Maine and Arizona, whereby candidates gather hundreds of small donations of $5 or $10 from registered voters and then qualify for public funding. The system is designed to allow candidates to run without having to raise money from lobbyists, contractors and other special interests. It is also supposed to level the playing field for women, minority, third-party or nontraditional candidates. But Schluter and other public-financing proponents had these complaints about the new bill: Candidates will raise regular campaign contributions funds for the June primary election, but then switch to public funds. "They can go to party functions, they can go to lobbyists on State Street," Schluter said. "Will they forget their primary benefactors in five months?" Only three of the 40 legislative districts will be included in the Clean Elections program next year. Last year, there were only two. Schluter's commission had recommended six districts be included. Third-party candidates will receive only half of the $100,000 in maximum funding available for major-party candidates. Proponents acknowledged the bill's shortcomings but said it was the best that would be passed. Sandra L. Matsen of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey tepidly supported the bill while expressing concerns about a provision that would allow a publicly financed candidate to withdraw from the program and raise campaign contributions anyway. "This is the hand we were dealt," Matsen said. "If you walk away from it, you may get nothing." Assemblyman Sean T. Kean, R-Monmouth, a member of the committee, said he believed it was the strongest bill that would gain the support of Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., D-Camden. Derek Roseman, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, said that primaries were not included in the clean elections program for next year and the program was limited to three districts because officials want to ensure the program works before expanding it. Under the bill, if the program meets certain benchmarks and is considered a success, the clean elections program will include primaries in 2009.

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