N.J. Girds to Keep 'Soft Money' at Bay

In this era of iron-clad cynicism about government, New Jerseyans have an uncommon trust in a state program that deals with what is often the slimiest part of politics - campaign fund-raising. An astounding 1 in 4 New Jersey residents checks off a small box on their tax forms, donating $1 to the state's election fund. Of the 21 states that have a check-off system, few get even a 1 in 10 response.

With the influx of money, New Jersey has built a wall around candidates that keeps big business and other high-power interests from unduly influencing politicians.

But even New Jersey now faces a campaign-finance threat: that so-called soft money will seep through and taint candidates.

Soft money - nearly unlimited contributions to political parties that are used to hype individual candidates - threatens the 21 other states that offer public funds to candidates. And it is at the heart of the fund-raising scandals in Washington.

But New Jersey's 20-year effort to control soft money provides a lesson in preserving public trust.

This year, in one of just two gubernatorial elections in the nation, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) and her Democratic challenger, state Sen. James McGreevey, will receive nearly $6.5 million apiece to help them pay for their campaign costs and expensive TV ads.

In exchange for the public handout - $2 for every $1 of privately raised cash - candidates must abide by strict caps on the amount of money they raise ($2,100 per individual, corporation, or political action committee) and spend ($3.1 million in the primary and $6.9 million in the general election). And they must be in two public debates.

"New Jersey has one of the more successful of the state programs," says Herb Alexander of the Citizens' Research Foundation at the University of Southern California. Its 2-to-1 match is the most generous of any state; most offer a 1-to-1 match. Spending limits are among the strictest. And it is one of the only states to require two debates.

But concern here began growing after last year's US Supreme Court ruling on a Colorado case that approved "independent" spending by state parties on behalf of candidates.

SOME citizens' groups now worry that state parties or other groups will start flinging money at the candidate of their choosing. "The integrity of our gubernatorial public financing system is at stake," says Dennis Jaffe, executive director of New Jersey Common Cause.

Jaffe's group has asked Whitman and Mr. McGreevey to sign a pact, agreeing not to accept independent funding. Both refused.

The state Democratic and Republican parties promise a clean election but say they'll keep all options open.

But early polls show McGreevey with some better-than-expected poll numbers. And in a tight race, both parties might be willing to pull out all the stops, says Fred Herrmann, executive director of the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Furthermore, the Democratic National Committee has indicated it will spend money to beat Whitman. "This is all something we've just not dealt with before," Mr. Herrmann says.

Other states are also finding how tough it is to keep special-interest money out of the election process.

In Kentucky, which adopted a public financing system similar to New Jersey's in 1992, four people were recently indicted on charges of violating the campaign laws to help get Paul Patton, a Democrat, elected governor. Maine last year approved a public financing system that would ban all private donations, but it is now being challenged in court as violating free speech.

What also worries Jaffe is that the wrong decision by state parties could ruin a system that, for the most part, is paid for voluntarily.

"There's a lot of public support in New Jersey for public financing," Mr. Alexander says. He hopes that doesn't change.

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