Movement seeking more public support|Editor’s note: This is the eighth installment in an occasional series on campaign finance.

Published 6:43 pm Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Staff Writer

Spurred on by back-to-back scandals linked to the apparent abuse of money in politics and government, some advocates of campaign-finance reform foresee a time when most, if not all, North Carolina elections will have a public-financing component.
“It’s happening in Connecticut and Arizona and Maine right now, with the vast majority of their state legislative and executive branch and judicial branch offices,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina.
Hall, whose advocacy group tracks elections issues, believes that one day public financing will be broadly available to candidates for a wide array of state offices.
“It’s all going to be voluntary,” he said of the programs-to-be which he envisions.
Partial public financing already is in play in statewide judicial races for nonpartisan seats on the N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, Hall pointed out.
The Voter-Owned Elections program, first put in motion in 2004, was the nation’s first such program for statewide judicial offices, according to Democracy North Carolina’s Web site.
More than 50 percent of the funding for the voluntary-participation program comes from taxpayers who choose to contribute $3 apiece by checking a box on their state income-tax forms, the Web site notes.
“The other funds come from a $50 surcharge on the annual fee that attorneys pay to the N.C. State Bar,” the site reads.
Participating statewide judicial candidates still must raise a certain amount from individuals to take part in the program.
Public money for campaigns also is in use through a pilot program for municipal seats in Chapel Hill, and the N.C. Voter-Owned Elections Fund is used for the positions of state auditor, commissioner of insurance and superintendent of public instruction.
There is evidence that some elected officials want to usher in an era of expanded public funding for candidates.
In April, Shaunee Morgan, a field organizer with Democracy North Carolina, said leaders in Raleigh, Durham and Wilmington had passed resolutions saying they would be interested in considering a public-financing option in their races.
“When you give people a description of both pluses and minuses, even when you say, ‘Would you rather campaigns be financed with tax money or with money from special interests,’ they would tend to choose the public financing or the tax option by margins of two-thirds to one-third or even more,” Hall said.
Damon Circosta, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, predicts that public financing will eventually expand to include seats in the N.C. Legislature.
“The idea is to ensure that democracy is run by people, not by special interests,” Circosta said.
In a poll released in April, the Center for Voter Education found that 71 percent of Old North State voters favored “a major overhaul to the state’s campaign finance system,” according to a news release from the center.
The poll asserted that 77 percent of respondents would support steps to lessen the influence of political money.
The poll of 775 registered voters was conducted by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.
In the short term, Circosta anticipates movement toward extending public money into more municipal contests.
A piece of legislation pending before the General Assembly would give towns and cities statewide the option of appropriating funds to pay for city-level elections.
House Bill 120 passed on third reading on April 21, 2009, by a 60-56 vote in the House, according to documents available online at the N.C. General Assembly’s Web site.
Among the lawmakers voting against the measure were Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, and Rep. Tim Spear, D-Washington.
Voting for the bill was Rep. Edith Warren, D-Pitt.
The last activity posted in relation to the bill was on June 4, 2009, when the paper concept moved into the Senate Committee on State and Local Government.
It was unclear when or if the bill would make it to a full Senate vote.
“The Legislature would certainly be a good place to have public financing,” Circosta commented, later agreeing that the General Assembly probably demands the hardest sell for such a step.
For those who favor widening public financing, the legislative landscape will be difficult to traverse because the lawmakers in power rose to their posts under the current campaign-finance regime, Circosta observed.
Asked for his assessment of the chances for including legislative races in public-financing schemes, Circosta replied, “Optimistic in the medium term. I don’t think it’ll happen in the short term, but I don’t think it’s 20 or 30 years away.”
Public financing is favored even by some candidates for seats that haven’t been the subject of recent debates about the reach of taxpayer money in campaigns.
In a series of interviews early this year, the Washington Daily News asked four candidates for a District Court seat whether they would accept public financing of their campaigns, if that option were available.
Three of the 2nd Judicial District candidates — Watsi Sutton, Darrell Cayton Jr. and Jonathan Jones — said they likely would use public financing if it were available.
One candidate, Sonia Privette, said she couldn’t make that commitment, since public financing didn’t apply in her race, but she indicated she would be interested in using public funds if that path were opened to her.
Jones said there are pros and cons to public financing, but asserted that the concept is “favorable” overall.
“Obviously, you want to be able to have enough financing to get the word out, let people know who you are,” he said. “I definitely think the idea behind it is a good idea.”