Support up for public campaign financing

‘Hustle for money’ compromises officials, group says, and more N.C. voters see that.

By Jim Morrill
The Charlotte Observer

When the N.C. Voters for Clean Elections began a decade ago, only a few reformers championed the idea of publicly financing state political campaigns.

Since then, North Carolina has adopted public financing for the campaigns of appellate court judges, three Council of State offices and local officials in one town.

“Little by little, we’re demonstrating that publicly financed election processes are not only possible but work better for candidates and voters alike,” said Chase Foster, director of the reform coalition.

Last week, more than 50 people gathered at a downtown Raleigh cafe to celebrate the coalition’s 10th anniversary. Among them were legislators and at least two statewide elected officials.

Ten years ago, North Carolina still had a reputation for clean politics. Since then, voters have seen a former state House speaker, a congressman, an agriculture secretary and two legislators imprisoned for corruption. This fall, a special state prosecutor began to investigate a former governor.

All that helps fuel hopes for more changes. Advocates of publicly financed campaigns point to polls they say show growing public support.

An Elon University poll last month showed 87 percent of North Carolinians think campaign contributions influence elected state officials. And a statewide survey by Public Policy Polling in November found 65 percent say they’d support giving “a limited amount of public funds” to candidates.

“More people recognize that we’ve got to address the heart of the problem, and that’s the hustle for money that’s going on in big campaigns,” said Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina, a watchdog group. “That is translating into support for public financing of campaigns.”

Public-finance advocates say the escalating costs of campaigning has forced candidates to rely heavily on political action committees and other special interests. They say 90 percent of campaign money in North Carolina comes from less than 1 percent of the population.

There are several proposals for further public financing in the General Assembly, and at least one in Congress.

All but a handful of the 120 co-sponsors of the federal Fair Elections Now Act are Democrats; one of the few Republicans behind it is Rep. Walter Jones, of Eastern N.C.’s 3rd district. Virtually all the sponsors of the state legislation are Democrats.

“It’s absurd,” state Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews said of public financing. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s still freedom of speech. You should be able to put the money you want to in a campaign and say what you want to say. The taxpayers shouldn’t be burdened with this cost.”

North Carolina’s judicial public financing program is funded by voluntary tax check-offs and by $50 fees on lawyer licenses. While some N.C. elections have been funded with tax money, that could change.

Plans to expand public financing in Council of State races would be funded entirely by assessments on those doing business with the particular agency or are regulated by it.

To qualify for public funding, candidates typically have to raise a number of small contributions and agree to spending limits.

Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said recent headlines about politicians in trouble adds momentum to the push for public financing.

“People are looking for ways this doesn’t spiral so far out of control,” he said, “that we lose the capacity of the public to really be the key factor in democracy.”