The illness: Big-money campaign contributions | News Feature | Indy Week
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Advocates call them "voter-owned" elections. That means public financing available to candidates so they can choose not to rely on contributions from special interests and the rich.

The illness: Big-money campaign contributions 

The cure: Expanding publicly financed elections

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Advocates call them "voter-owned" elections. That means public financing available to candidates so they can choose not to rely on contributions from special interests and the rich. In 2004, North Carolina stepped out ahead of the rest of the country when the General Assembly made money available to judicial candidates running statewide--for state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals seats, that is. It proved a popular option: In the '04 and '06 elections, 20 of the 28 eligible candidates used it (and two of the others tried but didn't meet a threshold of demonstrated support).

The advocates' big target in this General Assembly: the eight Council of State elections, including such offices as lieutenant governor, treasurer and auditor.

"Everyone seems to get it," says Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, one of the leading campaign reform groups. "It's ridiculous for the state auditor, for example, to be out soliciting campaign contributions, very much like it is for judges. It's just a matter of pushing it over the top and finding the money for it."

Democracy N.C. is also pushing for the General Assembly to test the public-financing idea on legislative campaigns by establishing a pilot program in a few districts. A pilot bill was introduced in the last term as part of a package of ethics and lobbying reforms, but it fell by the wayside.

Arizona and Maine both offer public funds to legislative candidates, and a majority of candidates in both states use it, according to the N.C. Coalition for Clean Elections, allowing them to say they're "running clean," as opposed to running with money supplied by contributors who want something back from the taxpayers.

Connecticut, too, is about to launch a public-financing option for legislative candidates, while New Jersey—which holds legislative elections in odd-numbered years—has a pilot program ready for '07.

Hall's optimistic one or both of the voter-owned measures the North Carolina legislature's considering will pass in this term.

For Council of State races, the logic of reform was brought home by the downfall of former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, daughter of ex-Gov. Bob Scott, who went to prison because of campaign money she took from vendors who wanted to run the State Fair.

More recently, Treasurer Richard Moore, who wants to be the next governor, has been criticized by his opponents for taking campaign funds from investment firms with contracts from his office (to help invest the state's pension funds).

But who else is going to contribute, reformers ask, to a candidate running for state treasurer, or insurance commissioner, or superintendent of public instruction, except folks with a direct interest in the outcome of the race?

Public funding, says Democracy N.C., "eliminates their reliance on donors who do business with the agency" or are regulated by it. At the same time, because of the way candidates seeking public financing must qualify to get it, it strengthens "voter involvement" in the outcomes.

For example, in a Council of State race, a candidate choosing the public-funding option under the leading voter-owned elections bill would need the support of 2,000 registered voters willing to contribute at least $10 (but no more than $100).

In legislative races, the threshold would be 150 voter-contributors in a House district, 300 in a Senate race.

Once qualified, candidates would then receive public funds equal to the average amount spent in their race in recent elections, and would agree to limit themselves to that amount.

Council of State elections would be funded by surcharges on fees collected by each office; legislative elections would require some other funding source, however.

Last year, in state Supreme Court races, the "clean" candidates were each given some $211,000 for their campaigns and Court of Appeals candidates $144,000. Moreover, if a "clean" candidate could demonstrate that she was up against a big-spender who wasn't in the public program, or was under attack by an "independent" political committee or a "527" group (think: "Swift Boat Veterans"), she'd be eligible for up to $650,000 in a Supreme Court race, $433,000 in a Court of Appeals race.

That won't pay for a "Cadillac" race in a state the size of North Carolina, says Chris Heagarty, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education. But it's "enough to get the job done," he says, if a candidate's got a sufficient base of support to begin with—or can build one. Without, as Democracy N.C.'s Hall says, having to resort to the old "money chase" for special-interest dough.

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