Public financing on local level. Lawrence councilman suggests using taxes for election campaigns

Public financing on local level

Lawrence councilman suggests using taxes for election campaigns

December 12, 2006 Trenton Times

If Councilman Greg Puliti can translate his vision into law, Lawrence may be the first town in New Jersey to use taxpayer dollars to finance municipal election campaigns. But such an ordinance would need to clear significant hurdles, attorneys say.

Funding an election campaign would cost taxpayers about $5,000 per candidate, Puliti estimated. In a typical election involving six candidates, the cost to the township for the campaigns would be $30,000. That equals 1/10th of 1 percent of the $37 million municipal budget, he said.

In 2004, Lawrence was one of more than two dozen towns across the state to adopt its own anti-pay-to-play laws. They are meant to constrict the money flow from contractors to candidates and political parties.

Candidates are also required to disclose their donations to the New Jersey Election and Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC).

Lawrence residents first proposed a pay-to-play ordinance two years ago. The state law enacted in June 2003 had too many loopholes, they said, and did not cover municipal government.

Their first town ordinance -- a contract pay-to-play -- was passed by referendum in 2004. The second, a redeveloper play-to-play, was enacted in 2005 by the Democrat-controlled council.

Supporting both was Citizen's Campaign, which has traveled from town to town in New Jersey to push for stricter campaign finance laws.

Initially, Lawrence Republicans supported pay-to-play and the Democrats -- who traditionally have had a fundraising advantage -- opposed it.

But last year, the Democratic-controlled council -- and Puliti -- endorsed the second pay-to-play ordinance.

Now, Puliti says he believes pay-to-play ordinances will never be enough to ensure uncontaminated elections.

"You can have full disclosure ordinances," he said, "but that's not going to stop the flow of money."

Puliti, a Democrat up for re-election next year, has proposed a citizens' council be convened to discuss his campaign finance idea.

At this point, township attorney Kevin Nerwinski said he is still kicking around the legality of using public funds to finance town campaigns.

"We're looking into whether it's viable or not," he said.

If his research indicates such an ordinance would be lawful, he said, the township would not need to go to the courts for approval. Only if its legality was questioned would they seek the court's guidance, he said.

While no state law allows a municipality to fund its own elections, this does not prevent a municipality from creating its own legislation "if it doesn't fly in the face of state law," said Nerwinski.

Lawrence is a Faulkner Act town, meaning proposed ordinances can be introduced directly by residents in referendum. The next step is for residents to vote on the idea, he said.

"Something as monumental as this type of legislation," said Nerwinski, "we would want to bring to referendum."

Financing municipal elections with public funds would certainly be unusual, said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a political watchdog group.

"I've never heard of it happening in a municipality," she said. "The concept," she added, "sounds fabulous."

While a town cannot mandate that candidates finance their campaigns with public funds, it can propose it, said Salowe-Kaye. Candidates would still have the option to turn down the public funds, she added.

Publicly funded campaign financing is the best way to preserve an uncontaminated election, Puliti maintained.

"There's nothing wrong with the advocates coming in to propose new pay-to-play ordinances," he said, "but you can put layer on top of layer and it still doesn't do the job."

But some experts say it's unlikely a town's proposal to fund its own elections would ever become law.

"I think it's a long shot," said Ernest Reock, a political scientist and retired director of the Center for Government Studies at Rutgers. "There's resistance to public funding of elections -- I would guess that a lot of legislatures would be hesitant about authorizing that."

A councilman in Ocean City recently proposed an idea similar to Puliti's. The ordinance that resulted was shot down during its first reading in June, said Georgina Shanley of Citizen's Campaign, who worked on drafting the law. A city solicitor questioned its legality, she said.

"We brought it to the doors of the castle," said Shanley. "We knocked on the door and the door was slammed."

They then had two options, she said. They could try to get enabling legislation passed, or go before a Superior Court judge to get a deciding judgment. The residents have since paid $10,000 for a lawyer.

"We decided we'd swallow hard," she said, "come up with the money and do it."

In Lawrence, there was early resistance to Puliti's proposal at last week's public meeting. Residents balked at the use of taxpayer funds to ensure clean elections.

"I don't think my tax dollars should go towards somebody else's campaign," said Linda Dlabik of Lawrence, "especially if I don't agree with your basic ideas."

The benefit of using public funds to finance campaigns is debated within Citizen's Campaign.

"If politicians are paid by private companies, they're beholden to them," said Shanley. "If they're paid by the public, they're beholden to us."

And public funding would allow many people to run who couldn't afford to otherwise, she added.

But if more candidates became involved, the tab would rise considerably, said Falk Engel, co-chair of Mercer County's Citizen Campaign.

"Once the taxpayers are going to pay for an election," he said, "then you'll have a lot of people who are going to want to come out and run."

The heads of Lawrence's Democratic and Republican parties are also divided over the idea.

"I think that's a poor use of public funds," said Scott Bentivegna, head of Lawrence's GOP. Full disclosure, he said, is better than "trying to limit the amount of funding or having a giveaway."

Jim Kownacki of Lawrence's Democratic Party disagreed.

"People, in my opinion, are jumping the gun," he said of the proposal's critics. Full disclosure laws are not working, he said.

"If there is corruption, this would be a way of stopping it."

Puliti said an influence for his campaign finance idea was a pilot program at the legislative level a year and a half ago.

His proposal sounds similar to a state bill released last Thursday, said Salowe-Kaye of Common Cause.

As part of the New Jersey Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Project Act, a pilot project would allow candidates in three legislative districts to get public funding from the state for their election campaigns, provided they show sufficient public support. To demonstrate that support, they must collect 800 private contributions of $10 each.

Whether this concept will be successful remains to be seen, said Engel.

"We're going to have to see what kind of bill the Legislature comes up with on the pilot project. You have to feel your way along with baby steps on these kinds of things."

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