Public financing hits an obstacle

Published 12:56 am Friday, June 25, 2010

Staff Writer

Opponents of a proposal to expand public financing to additional North Carolina political campaigns scored a victory Thursday morning.
In response to “robo calls” launched by the conservative activist group Americans for Prosperity North Carolina, Democratic state senators backed off of a move to broaden public financing through an ethics-reform bill, sources in Raleigh said.
According to Dallas Woodhouse, state director of AFP, the calls went out to voters in 10 districts across the state, including the district represented by Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, president pro tempore of the Senate.
Basnight represents Beaufort County and seven other counties in the northeast corner of the state.
“We’ve had a long history of opposing using taxpayer money to run political campaigns,” Woodhouse said. “We think it’s an improper use of taxpayer money.”
The calls reached “tens of thousands” of voters, he said.
AFP had to react speedily because Senate leaders were trying to the rush the bill through, leaving no time for a campaign through the mail, Woodhouse added.
“In this case we had to do it quickly,” he said.
The voter-owned elections portion of the ethics-reform legislation would have extended voluntary public-financing options to six N.C. Council of State jobs — state treasurer, commissioner of insurance, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of labor and secretary of state — starting with the 2012 election, and attorney general starting in 2016.
A news release from Basnight’s office notes that funding for the program would have been “fee-based,” not derived from the state’s general fund.
Public financing aside, the bill also would raise penalties for violations of campaign-contribution laws and clarify a ban on gift-giving by lobbyists and the entities they represent.
Sources who lobbied in favor of the reform initiative this week had said Basnight would not oppose the bill.
The legislation appeared destined for a vote by the full Senate, but it was sent back to the Senate Judiciary I Committee instead.
There, the bill was stripped of the public-financing provision Thursday, as reported by statewide media outlets.
Advocates of campaign-finance reform said excising the public-funding portion of the bill didn’t end the push to widen the scope of reform.
“It’s a delay. It’s a setback in that it won’t be a part of the ethics package,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, whose advocacy group has made expanding public financing a centerpiece of its agenda.
Hall acknowledged that more work needs to be done to make voters aware of public financing for campaigns.
“There does need to be more education,” he said. “People need to understand and look at what is involved in it. The opposition used code words about higher taxes and politicians you don’t like to gin up a bunch of phone calls to the state senators and that spooked them. But I think that if people had looked at the bill or the proposal they would have seen that it wasn’t increasing their taxes and it wasn’t going to wreak havoc.”
Damon Circosta, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, said, “We had an opportunity to combat this special-interest money in a more complicated way. The Senate Judiciary Committee has decided to take a bifurcated approach.”
The center will move forward in trying to introduce new public-financing legislation, Circosta related.
“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said Thursday. “The legislation that was in place this morning was a bold step. I think it did go in the right direction.”
Woodhouse said all voting groups react negatively to the concept of publicly financed political campaigns.
AFP’s state Web site calls the concept “welfare for politicians.”
“Taxpayers should not be forced to fund campaigns they disagree with,” the Web site reads.
In April, Circosta’s Center for Voter Education issued a news release saying 71 percent of Old North State voters “favor a major overhaul to the state’s campaign finance system.”
The pollsters found that 80 percent of respondents thought that office-seekers listened more to the groups that helped fund their campaigns than to average voters.
The center engaged Public Policy Polling to survey 775 registered voters. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.