Campaign reform a solid step ahead

Published 4:42 pm Friday, August 3, 2007

By Staff
It may not be the golden bullet that ends election campaign abuses, but Thursday’s decision by state lawmakers is at least a tool that voters will have in their toolbox to fight such abuses.
Lawmakers agreed to expand the state’s voluntary public-campaign financing program to cover three more statewide races in next year’s elections. It is a move supporters said would reduce the influence of money from special-interest groups.
The vote was 28-19 down party lines in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The Senate agreed to a version of the bill the House passed last week. It would expand taxpayer financing to the 2008 races for state auditor, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction. A similar program for state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court candidates began in 2004.
NCVCE is the coordinating body for a number of organizations that are concerned about the harmful effects of the current campaign financing system.
The way the new law works is candidates would get a certain amount of campaign money from a public fund if they meet certain qualifications. Not all candidates will be eligible. Candidates must show broad support by collecting a set number of signatures and donations under $75 each from voters in the district. They would also have to agree to strict spending limits and refuse to accept any additional money from other sources.
NCVCE has allies in the AARP of North Carolina, the N.C. Association of Educators, Common Cause of North Carolina and the Baptist State Convention.
If Gov. Mike Easley signs the bill, the change also would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure it complies with the Voting Rights Act.
Under the legislation, candidates that collect small contributions from at least 750 voters statewide before the primary election would be eligible for at least $300,000 in public money to spend on the general elections.
The bill sets aside $4.6 million over the next two years for participating candidates.
Schools Superintendent June Atkinson and Insurance Commissioner Jim Long have backed the measure. Supporters contend the program will blunt criticism that candidates for the included posts receive campaign dollars from groups they would regulate if elected to office.
Republicans largely opposed the measure on the grounds that North Carolina taxpayers shouldn’t pay for individual campaigns. At least for now, Republicans don’t have the clout to stop the bill.
Some also complained the State Board of Elections failed to provide additional funds to some appellate court candidates when a ‘‘527’’ political group ran television ads supporting four other candidates in the final week before last November’s election. That is a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed. If one candidate plays by the rules but is blindsided by political groups that aren’t bound by those rules, it’s less likely the candidate would opt for the program.
To the critics: Remember the word “voluntary.” At this point, there is nothing that says a candidate must accept the program’s conditions and the money. That makes a difference.