TRENTON - New Jersey will offer taxpayer cash to Assembly and Senate candidates in three districts this year in an effort to remove special-interest money from campaigns, under a measure signed into law yesterday by Gov. Corzine.

Supporters hope the law will push New Jersey closer to having a statewide publicly funded campaign program, as Arizona, Connecticut and Maine have done.

"It is an important step forward that gets us closer to having a more open government that is accountable only to the people," Corzine said.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., a major backer of the plan, said the law would strengthen the democratic process by removing questionable money from politics.

"This is not an academic exercise," said Roberts (D., Camden). "This is something that is real and something that has to succeed."

Under the law, candidates for the Assembly and Senate in three districts would be eligible for public campaign financing by first raising $10,000 in seed money - all donations coming from individuals in amounts of $500 or less.

Candidates would then be required to collect only donations of $10. Upon collecting 400 donations, candidates would get $50,000 for campaign expenses, while collecting 800 donations would earn them $100,000.

Independent candidates would be able to qualify for up to half the amount allowed for the two major parties.

About $7.7 million would be provided to fund the program. Of that, $6.75 million would go to candidates, with the rest designated for administrative expenses and public information efforts.

The three participating districts will be selected by April 16.

The law, which applies only to this year's general elections, aims to revamp a pilot program that had limited success in 2005 Assembly elections.

Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer) said she hoped the program would help bring more women and minorities into politics, while Roberts said he was committed to expanding the program.

"We are moving the reform agenda forward, taking one more step toward making fundamental change in the way we do politics in New Jersey," said Vic De Luca, of New Jersey Citizen Action, a government watchdog group that lobbied for the law.

'Clean Elections' 2007

What it is: A pilot program to test publicly financed election campaigns. The idea is to remove the influence of special interests from elections, and make the process more accessible to everyday people who lack the backing of party machines and big money.

When it would take effect: The current election cycle, leading up to the November general election.

Who would be eligible: State Assembly and Senate candidates in three yet-to-be-determined legislative districts - one Democratic, one Republican and one competitive. Legislative leaders have until April 9 to choose the districts.

How it would work: In the Democratic and GOP-dominated districts, candidates would have to collect at least 400 donations of $10 each from registered voters in their district to qualify for $50,000 in public campaign funds. They would have to collect 800 donations of $10 to get the maximum allotment of $100,000. Independent candidates could get a maximum of $50,000.

Candidates facing privately funded opponents could also get up to $100,000 in "rescue money" to help level the playing field. Candidates in the competitive, politically split district would have access to more public money - up to the average spent by candidates in that district during the two previous election cycles.

Key differences from the 2005 pilot program:

Candidates need fewer contributions - totaling $4,000 - to qualify. In 2005, they needed to raise $20,000 to qualify.

Qualifying contributions can be in the form of cash, making it easier for candidates to collect the required donations.

Three districts, instead of two, are participating, and one of those is a competitive district.

The program covers both Senate and Assembly races - not just Assembly contests.

Major criticism:

The program does not cover primary elections, which is where the real contest plays out in districts dominated by one party.

Independent candidates don't get equal resources.

Too few districts are participating, and not enough of them are competitive.

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