Ignore Those Screeching in Defense of the Status Quo
There's plenty to like in the package of ethics and government reform now making its way through the state Senate. It comes -partially in response to the wavering public confidence in public officials as the state and federal investigations into former Gov. Mike Easley and his allies continue.
It toughens penalties for violations of campaign finance rules, extends ethics rules to more top officials in state government, and makes legislators and other key officials wait a year before lobbying.
Those provisions could be tougher, and there are several reforms missing, like requiring key appointees to disclose their fundraising activities and limiting how much political parties can contribute to individual candidates.
But most of the objections to the Senate reform package have nothing to do with ethics laws or fundraising reporting requirements. Republicans and the think-tankers on the right are beside themselves that the legislation also expands the state's voter-owned election program to five Council of State offices - attorney general, -treasurer, secretary of state and -commissioners of agriculture and labor.
Candidates for state auditor, commissioner of insurance and superintendent of public instruction can already choose to participate in the program, which provides campaign funds for qualified candidates who agree to spending limits.
The idea is that it is not in the public interest for a candidate running for commissioner of agriculture to raise money from people whom the department regulates. But that's who is interested in giving money to candidates for commissioner.
Bond lawyers have an obvious interest in being on good terms with a state treasurer, and what better way to establish a relationship than by making a big contribution to a candidate for treasurer's campaign or hosting a fundraiser or raising money from other lawyers in the firm?
The voter-owned election program provides public money instead for the candidates who choose to participate, money without strings attached, and gives the candidates time to talk to voters, not beg for money from potential donors.
None of that seems to matter to legislative Republicans or the think tanks that provide their talking points. They blasted the Democrats for including the voter-owned elections in the ethics bill and refused to vote for it, describing the voter-owned elections as everything from unconstitutional to welfare for politicians.
The head of Raleigh's best-known think tank on the right went further, calling the provision deeply unethical, a gross insult to voters, nonsensical and grotesque. The favored alternative of the right is the status quo, money continuing to buy elections and special favors.
Not only do they think there is nothing we can do about the current campaign finance system, they are insistent that there is nothing we should do. Let the market decide elections. Money will decide politics and that's the way it should be.
The folks on the right also furiously object to people paying for campaigns they don't agree with. But that's part of living in a democracy. Our tax dollars are used for things we don't agree with every day. Paying for open, honest, and clean elections seems like an investment we can't afford not to make.
What's grotesque is what we have now, a political system where -special-interest money decides elections and influences the decisions that affect our lives and determine where far more of our tax dollars are spent than the money used for voter-owned elections.
Ironically, a perfect illustration of the problem is the decision by Senate leaders not to include in the ethics legislation permission for more local governments to set up their own voter-owned election programs for local races.
Chapel Hill already has voter-owned elections, used successfully in the last election. Seven cities, representing 1.3 million people, have passed resolutions asking for the authority to set up their public financing programs but were ignored by the Senate leadership.
The most powerful special interest fighting the expansion of local public financing is the development community, typically the largest funder of local races. It is worth noting that the homebuilders' political action committee gave $28,500 to members of the Senate in the first quarter of this year, including $10,000 to the members of the Senate judiciary committee that considered the ethics package.
North Carolina desperately needs better ethics and disclosure laws, and the House should insist that the proposals in the Senate package be expanded and made tougher.
And no matter how loud the screeching by the right for the special interest status quo, the House also should demand an expansion of local voter-owned elections. We need both honest, ethical government and clean elections.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch. Contact him at email@example.com.
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