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Public financing of local elections: The next logical step

The anti-democracy reform crowd is at it again – spreading misinformation about campaign finance reform. Their current target is House Bill 120, a fairly innocuous proposal in the state legislature to provide municipalities the legal authority to experiment with public financing of local elections. It's something the town of Chapel Hill will be doing this fall.

HB 120 imposes no mandate for cities and requires no money from the state. It's just "enabling" legislation that merely grants cities and towns permission to voluntarily try out public financing. 

But the anti-reform naysayers have ratcheted up their doom and gloom rhetoric. Whether it's in op-eds, emails or the outside propagandists they bring to the legislature, their message simplistic is the same: public financing is another threat to free markets, lower taxes and limited government. 

Never mind that our state's judicial public financing program, arguably the envy of the nation, produces less costly and more positive campaigns election after election. And never mind the success of last year's pilot public financing program for State Auditor, Insurance Commissioner and State Superintendent. Four of six candidates, Republicans and Democrats, participated and campaign costs were held in check. Even more importantly, the dominance of wealthy special interest money in these races was all but eliminated.

The anti-reform naysayers' latest salvo is to declare public financing unconstitutional – their convenient misinterpretation of a recent U.S. Supreme Court case. Never mind that the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has already upheld North Carolina's judicial public financing program and that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to even hear the case on appeal.

In all their bluster, the anti-reform crowd seeks to protect our broken campaign finance system. The ever-increasing costs of campaigns funded by wealthy special interests who seek to game the system with big money donations is A-OK with them. 

They voice no concerns nor offer any solutions on how to reduce the ever-rising costs of campaigns, eliminate the ever-growing influence of special interests, or address the ever decreasing willingness of candidates to run for office.

It's a sad fact in North Carolina that the cost of running for mayor and city council is becoming prohibitively high in many of our medium and major cities. Wilmington, Asheville, Cary, Raleigh and Charlotte have all had their share of six figure campaigns for local office in recent years. 

The mayor of Wilmington spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars for election in 2007.  Since 2001, Raleigh has seen at least three mayoral candidates spend more than a half million dollars on their respective campaigns. 

And driving the train for these higher costing races is the home building real estate interests – the top source of big money for local elections. Developers have lots of business before local councils so they are inclined to provide lots of money to local campaigns 

Spiraling campaign costs at the national and state level have contributed toward a dramatic decline in campaign competition. This unhealthy trend is becoming more common place at the local level. In the 2007 local elections for Charlotte and Raleigh, more city council races were uncontested than contested. 

Despite the dire warnings of the anti-reform crowd, there is a growing support for allowing locals to experiment with public financing. HB 120 is co-sponsored by 31 representatives and has been endorsed by a dozen mayors across North Carolina, from Canton to Greenville, to Greensboro, Oxford, Raleigh and Durham.

HB 120 does not force public financing on any municipality. The legislation simply provides the authority for each city and town to decide its own destiny on election reform.

And just as was the case in Chapel Hill, there will be plenty of opportunity for local public input before any decision is made. Also, any local public financing program must meet the approval of the state Board of Elections. And all programs will be administered by the state board as well.

HB 120 has recently won approval in two state House committees. It may reach the House floor in the near future. This will be a vote for local decision making on an issue that impacts the health of local election. 

Something locals should decide, not the Raleigh based anti-democracy reformers or the big money special interest developers.

Bob Phillips is the Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina [1]