The Senate hits the panic button

The Senate hits the panic button

- in Fitzsimon File

State Senate leaders are now scrambling to reshape major ethics legislation after backing down in the face of misleading right-wing attacks and robocalls by removing provisions to expand public financing of election for Council of State offices.

North Carolina already has voter-owned elections for judicial candidates and three Council of State offices. The concept of providing public money to candidates so they won't have to rely on private special interest money to get elected is well established and it makes sense to expand the successful program to more offices.

But the public debate in the last two days has not really been about special interest money or the best way to pay for campaigns. It has been about partisan politics, the fall election, misleading soundbites, political ambition, and maybe most importantly, the problems with the way the Senate conducts its business.

The robocalls were apparently delivered to several swing Senate districts by the right-wing group Americans for Prosperity. The recordings featured former Charlotte mayor and unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory who is desperately trying to stay relevant until the next election by appealing to the Republican's tea party base.

McCrory message was that Senate Democrats were raising taxes in the middle of a recession to pay for political campaigns. The Senate legislation increases some business fees to raise the revenue to provide funds to candidates. It's hardly a tax increase.

Even hard-line conservative Republicans who sign the ridiculous no-new tax pledges have long supported increasing various fees to raise revenue and many right-wing think tanks constantly push for higher fees for a variety of state services.

But that's not the point of course. The right-wing political machine is going to blame lawmakers for raising taxes this session whether they raise them or not and sees the public financing bill as an easy opportunity to distort the record and associate the higher taxes with money for politicians.

It's ludicrous but it worked enough to scare Senate Democrats to abandon their push for cleaner elections this year. And in many ways the Senate leadership has only themselves to blame.

It is easy for the Right to distort Senate proposals when they are created in secret and appear just hours before a vote. There's no chance for open public debate and hearings to explain the plan to toughen the ethics laws and expand the public financing program that Democratic and Republican candidates alike have participated in.

There's no time to hear that a poll last year showed that people in North Carolina overwhelmingly say they would prefer a candidate whose campaign funds came from taxpayer money instead of special interests.

There's no time for thorough public discussions with Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig, who came to Raleigh this week to promote public financing and has already convinced many Republicans around the country that it's the best way to pay for elections.

Conservative Republican Congressman Walter Jones is a co-sponsor of legislation in Congress for a national public financing program. It is a probably a safe bet that Americans for Prosperity is not flooding Jones' constituents with robocalls.

Senate Democrats could have released an ethics package weeks ago that included expanded voter-owned elections and held committee meetings and public hearings about it. That would have made it tougher for Americans for the Prosperous to succeed with its misleading robocall attacks the day before a scheduled vote.

But instead the Senate did what the Senate always does, worked out its plan behind closed doors in meetings where Senators fret about polls and focus groups and try to figure out when to unveil what they decide is best without ever explaining it to the people they represent.

The distortions and the robocalls worked because Senate leaders panicked and talked only to themselves about their plan, not the public. That's too bad, because we need voter-owned elections to reduce the influence of the wealthy special interests on our political system.

We' ll get them eventually when legislative leaders let everybody participate in the debate.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.