Editorial: Widen state’s clean elections experiment

   It is time for the state to expand its clean-elections experiment into as many districts as it can afford.
   The program, which provides funding to qualified candidates who agree not to accept private fundraising, is designed to restore the public’s trust in the state’s elected officials by removing private money from the electoral process.
   Tried in three legislative districts, including the 14th, which includes South Brunswick, the program leveled the funding playing field and allowed the seven candidates who qualified to forgo hat-in-hand fundraising and focus on the kind of retail politics that allows them to connect directly with voters.
   Under the 2007 clean elections pilot program, candidates who collected 400 qualifying contributions of $10 were eligible for $50,000 in funding — $46,000 from the clean election fund, plus the $4,000 in qualifying contributions. Candidates who collected the maximum number of qualifying contributions — 800 — would receive significantly more, $100,000 total for candidates in non-competitive districts (the Republican 24th in Hunterdon County and the Democratic 37th in Bergen) and $534,375 for candidates in the competitive 14th. Third-party candidates who qualified were to receive $25,000 for 400 contributions and $50,000 for 800.
   The program also allowed for “rescue funding,” up to $100,000 in extra funding to offset spending by unaffiliated groups,
   All together, 16 candidates of 20 candidates who were on the ballot in the three districts qualified for funding (the three Republicans in the 37th and one Libertarian in the 14th failed to collect the minimum contributions) with more than $4 million being distributed.
   Candidates in the 14th District said the program freed them from fundraising duties that in the past would crowd out other campaign activities and the six major-party candidates all said they would support the program’s expansion.
   That’s not to say that there were not flaws in the program, but they should be simple to fix:
   • Third-party candidates should be funded at the same level as their major-party counterparts. Libertarian candidate Jason Scheurer could have received a maximum of $50,000 for his 14th District race, had he qualified for full funding. His major-party opponents all qualified for the maximum of $534,375. If the program is to expand opportunities for third parties, the program has to level the funding.
   • Expand it to the primaries. In many legislative districts — those around Newark, for instance — there is only one functioning party, which means challenges to the status quo tend to occur during the primaries. Challengers, however, rarely have the financial backing of the party’s anointed candidates. Clean elections can help level the funding disparity.
   • Funding levels were set too high and should be reduced. The program under its current format would require a minimum of $24 million just to provide $100,000 in funding to major party candidates during years when senate and assembly seats are on the ballot. That does not take into account the extra funding given to split districts, rescue funds and the potential expansion of the program to the primaries.
   The Legislature must act quickly, however, because expansion to the primaries will be difficult if the program is not in place before a state budget is approved. A small amount of money could be included in the proposed budget, offset by the elimination of business tax loopholes and other giveaways to industry, to fund the primary portion of the program while a longer-term solution could be put in place beginning with the 2009-2010 budget.
   A clean elections program is our best chance to break the connection between campaign contributions and public policy and restore the confidence of the people whom our elected officials are supposed to serve.