SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Expanding the Public Financing of Campaigns
Since its inception, North Carolina's foray into public financing of election campaigns has met mixed results.
The program began in 2004 with appellate court elections -- the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Candidates wishing to participate had to raise small, matching contributions to qualify for public money raised from $50 lawyer fees and a check-off on state income tax forms.
In that first election, the program accomplished one of its main goals, getting special interest money out of campaign coffers. The rate of nonfamily contributions from lawyers and political committees dropped from 73 percent to 14 percent, according to Democracy North Carolina, a group supporting public financing.
But in the 2006 election, an outside group with ties to the state Democratic Party pumped $200,000 into state Supreme Court races in the final days of the campaign. The group ran ads touting the records of four candidates. Three of the four were Democrats. All four won.
It's the ability of these outside groups, shadow campaigns that the courts either can't or won't control, to put money into election efforts that can potentially undo the intent of public financing.
Still, in 2008, North Carolina lawmakers decided to expand public financing to include statewide elections for schools superintendent, insurance commissioner and state auditor.
No outside money poured in. In the case of insurance commissioner, public financing stopped a long trend of insurers' money flowing into the campaign of the person charged with regulating those insurers.
Against this backdrop, new state Treasurer Janet Cowell announced last week that she is supporting legislation to add candidates for state treasurer to the list of those who can qualify for public financing.
Cowell noted that public financing would help ensure that future treasurer races are free from suspicion that campaign donations helped secure the multimillion-dollar contracts to manage state pension money.
She's right. The actions of her predecessor, Richard Moore, when it came to campaign fundraising, certainly raised those suspicions. If any office begs for public financing, it's that of state treasurer.
Cowell's endorsement of public financing, now that she holds the office, is especially significant because she's backing a proposal that erases a substantial advantage she would enjoy in future treasurer's races. Unlike some other statewide offices, an incumbent treasurer has no trouble raising campaign dollars, relying on investment banking donors.
Besides legislation focusing on the state treasurer's race, Rep. Rick Glazier, a Cumberland County Democrat, plans to file a bill that will make campaigns for other statewide offices eligible for public financing.
Of course, critics will say that public financing chills political speech and ultimately acts as a drain on taxpayer money. Even dismissing that criticism, public financing is far from perfect.
But anyone who believes that the vast sums of money in politics don't create conflicts of interest is wrong. Many of those conflicts damage real people, in ways great and small.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
More like this story