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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 03/14/05        NJBiz online

The Best Reform You've Never Heard Of

by Ingrid Reed

New Jersey recently had three days in a row ol remarkable public‑policy news. But it is likely that you have heard of only the first two ol these measures. On February 28 attention was focused on the state Senate for unanimously approving pay-to-play legislation. In a historic session, Democrats and Republicans both realized that it was in their interest as well as the state's to take this major step to moderate the role of money in politics.

The next day, March 1, Acting Governor Richard Codey gave an equally historic budget message in which he presented a budget that was smaller than last year's and balanced without borrowing, and stressed setting priorities in light of the state's near-bankruptcy.

While both days' events initiative were path‑breaking, their ini­tiatives are far from resolved. The specifics of how pay-to-play restrictions will be applied have yet to be worked out. Codey last week conditionally vetoed the bill and returned it to the Senate for changes that will enable the state to receive federal highway funds that Washington cut off last year over concerns that reform would limit bidding competition. Meanwhile, the budget-making process has only just begun.

The third remarkable, and least noticed, policy initiative took place on March 2 with little fanfare and scant media attention. The state launched a drive for fairer and more open campaigns for the Legislature with the initial meeting of a bipartisan commission to implement a "Clean Elections" plan to publicly fund legislative races. This will make New Jersey the first state to enact such campaign-finance reform through the Legislature. Maine and Arizona , the two states that now use public funds to finance legislative races, approved the step through public referenda.

It is easy to slight New Jersey 's public-finance initiative since it is a pilot program that will apply to just two legislative districts in next falls general elections. In 2007 the program will cover both primary and general elections in six legislative districts. Public funding for the pilot program will be a modest $100,000 per campaign, and possibly higher if a candidate runs against a wealthy opponent who declines to participate in the program. To qualify for public money, candidates must first raise $20,000 through small contributions.

This modest policy breakthrough is remarkable largely because it begins with a pilot program. It never would have passed if the proposal had called for so-called clean elections for all legislative races. It was the go-slow approach that allowed the change to begin.

Implementing genuine reform requires persistent attention, flexibility and a demonstration of progress. Of course, businesses have long tested new products in selected markets before launching them widely. The public sector can learn from the private sector in this regard.

This third and least-heralded new initiative could serve as a model for confronting pay-to-play and coping with the budget deficit. The initiative reduces candidates' reliance on special-interest campaign financing, which is the focus of pay-to-play reform. And as New Jersey faces its long-term budget challenge, it may consider approaches that are limited in scope and can be carefully evaluated before they become statewide. The "Clean Elections" initiative deserves to be in the public eye for its potential for reform and as an example of an effective way to do the government's business.