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.”

Public financing needed to avoid AG conflicts

This op-ed appeared in The State today. It was written by John Crangle, a longtime member of the SC Progressive Network and advocate for our clean elections initiatives.

By John Crangle
Common Cause of South Carolina

The controversy over Attorney General Henry McMaster’s acceptance and later return of $32,000 of campaign contributions from lawyers he hired to represent the state of South Carolina in a lawsuit against drug companies is yet another episode in a continuing chronicle of attorneys general taking campaign money from lawyers and parties having legal business with the state.
The problem arose when Attorney General Travis Medlock was running for governor, when Attorney General Charlie Condon was running for governor and U.S. Senate and now with McMaster running for governor.

The danger of conflict of interest, favoritism, abuse of office and corruption ia very real for attorneys general, who have in their jurisdiction great discretionary power. The attorney general can decide which lawyers are retained to represent the state in multimillion-dollar lawsuits, which in some cases produce huge attorney fees. Furthermore, the attorney general is in a position to file civil suits and to favorably settle suits benefiting an adverse party. In criminal matters, the attorney general has the power to decide whether to seek an indictment, whether to prosecute, whether to plead a case down or even dismiss.

All of these decisions can have catastrophic or highly beneficial consequences to the lawyers and parties involved. Many lawyers and clients would pay dearly for favored treatment by the attorney general in such cases.

It is all too easy for campaign contributions to influence the decision-making of attorneys general, especially in close cases where great civil or prosecutorial discretion is in play. Given the extensive history of public corruption in South Carolina over the years, it is not far-fetched to envision a future attorney general trading favors for campaign contributions.

Public financing of races for attorney general would be the best cure for the problem of corrupting campaign contributions. As a member of Gov. Jim Hodges’ Commission on Campaign Finance Reform in 2000-01, I argued that the danger of pay-to-play corruption was most acute in the office of attorney general due to the great discretionary power of the office and the enormous stakes involved in major civil and criminal cases. It also seemed that the cost of public financing for the attorney general race would be modest since at the time candidates were spending relatively small sums

The big objection to public financing is always that the taxpayers should not have to pay for the cost of election campaigns. Of course, the taxpayers already pay many costs of elections, including the expense of the S.C Election Commission, the county election commissions and all of the related costs of providing polling places, buying multimillion-dollar voting equipment and hiring poll workers. In case of election appeals and litigation, the taxpayers pay much of these costs too.

My proposal is to have an unprecedented public financing system for attorneys general whereby the ordinary taxpayers pay nothing, but the necessary money would be raised by a tax on campaign contributions to political candidates. As candidates for state and local office raise well over $20 million every four years, a tax of 10 percent would generate enough money to provide candidates for attorney general with public funds sufficient to communicate their positions and qualifications to the voters.

Supreme Court rulings give candidates the right to raise money for their own campaigns, so the state can only offer to give them public financing in exchange for voluntarily not raising money. So public financing alone wouldn’t accomplish our goals. But if we retain the existing laws that limit campaign contributions by source, amount and use, ban contributions from special counsel as suggested in a recent editorial column by Cindi Ross Scoppe and also add my proposal for public financing, we could deter conflicts of interest and abuse of office and inhibit corruption in the position of attorney general.

Finally, an especially and difficult manifestation of the problem is incumbent attorneys general raising funds for another office such as Congress or governor. Although we can’t prohibit an attorney general from raising money, for re-election or election to another office, we can prohibit an incumbent from transferring funds from an attorney general account to a campaign for another office. And we should.

Public financing for the attorney general’s race can serve as a pilot project. If voters and legislators conclude after a trial run that public financing has worked well for attorney general candidates, then public financing could next be tried for another office, such as governor or treasurer.

Now Hear This: the Fair Elections Now Act

The House Administration Committee held a hearing on July 30 on the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1826), at which members heard testimony on the bill and how similarly modeled programs have worked in the states.

Each member of the committee was given the chance to make introductory remarks before proceeding. Although there was some disagreement, all of the members agreed on one thing: their disdain for political fundraising. “I’m going to put it on the record, I hate raising money for campaigns. The only two people I know who enjoyed it, both went to prison,” said Rep. Daniel Lungren (R-Calif.).

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) echoed this sentiment in his testimony:

“I actually think this concept [public financing] is exactly what we need. I hate raising money. I hate it. I hate the fact that the general public thinks that every time I raise a dollar, I’m being bought. I hate it. It’s bad not just for me. It’s bad for the system, it’s bad for people’s perception of government.…I would really much rather be reading a healthcare bill and having that debate, which is fine, or any number of things than ever picking up the phone to anybody to beg them, not for a hundred bucks but for thousands of dollars.”

The committee heard testimony from two panels of witnesses. The first panel included the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), and original co-sponsors Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.). Speaking first, Rep. Larson said:

“Unfortunately there is, and will remain, the perception that contributions mean influence. This perception is incredibly harmful to Congress as an institution. It erodes the faith and trust of the American people in their government—a critical part of our democracy. We must change this system.“

Rep. Jones followed with some powerful remarks:

“I walked into this room today thinking this was the most important testimony that I could be part of because the system is broken, the system needs to be fixed. Mr. Larson has presented a bill that will work us towards a fix of this problem…[L]et’s return Congress to where they vote based on their conscience not on the influence or perceived influence of money that buys the conscience. Let’s return it back to the people.”

The second panel was comprised of witnesses representing both sides of the debate. Those speaking in favor of the bill were Maine state Speaker of the House of Representatives (and daughter of Rep. Pingree) Hannah Pingree (D); Jeffrey Garfield, executive director & general counsel of the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission; and Arn Pearson, vice president for Programs at Common Cause. Testifying in opposition were Brad Smith, professor of Law at Capital University School of Law and chairman and co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics; and John Samples, director for the Center for Representative Government at the right-leaning CATO Institute.

Pearson, who closed out the hearing with his testimony, left the members of the committee with a poignant question.

“I doubt this is what you had in mind when you decided to run for Congress. Surely the American people did not send Mr. Smith to Washington to spend his time raising money. They expect and deserve more, and so do you. If you could start from scratch, would this be the system you would choose?”

The hearing was a huge success. Members of the committee were engaged and the committee room was standing room only. During the August recess we will continue to ask lawmakers to co-sponsor the bill through phone calls, e-alerts, letters to the editor, and participating in town hall meetings. Be on the lookout for future calls to action and don’t forget to ask your member to support the Fair Elections Now Act!