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Report from the campaign finance reform front

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(Editor's note: This is an update from Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina regarding campaign reform and the $3 check-off on the state tax form for a new public financing program and voter guide in statewide judicial elections.)

Check-off response
The N.C. Dept. of Revenue (DOR) says that taxpayers earmarked $446,000 for the Public Campaign Financing Fund on tax returns "processed" through March 31. DOR had provided an earlier number for returns processed through Feb. 26, and when those numbers are compared, it shows that the participation rate more than doubled for returns processed during March, reflecting the fruits of the collective work of volunteers, reform organizations, allies, etc. Based on past trends, DOR says the $446,000 came from 53 percent of all returns that will be filed this year, either by April 15 or under extension. So we are on track to reach $900,000 or even $1 million from the check-off, if the higher participation rate holds true.

This is a remarkable achievement because, by our estimate, more than half of North Carolina taxpayers got incomplete or misleading information about the Public Campaign Financing Fund from their electronic software, tax service or accountant. Only after our protests in late February did DOR send notices to software vendors about the required language describing the Public Campaign Financing Fund; most vendors updated their systems, but tax preparers in many offices continued not to ask the question or not make it clear that the $3 designation didn't change a person's tax bill or refund.

Supply & demand
There was already $600,000 in the Public Campaign Financing Fund from a previous Candidate's Fund and from contributions from attorneys and others--so the total, with the check-off, should be about $1.5 million. The State Board of Elections, using a more conservative estimate for the check-off, puts the number at $1.3 million. Either way, that's enough to provide the $1.23 million needed for the basic level of public funding in the general election for two candidates per seat for the four judicial seats currently on the November ballot (one Supreme Court, three Court of Appeals seats).

All seven of the announced candidates, as of April 23, have already signed formal statements that they intend to participate in the program.

It is very unlikely that funds will be available for the State Board of Elections to mail out millions of the planned judicial voter guides for the primary election; an on-line edition will very likely be prepared, and newspapers, etc., will be asked to reproduce it. However, the State Board of Elections and legislative allies are looking for ways to finance mail distribution for a voter guide for the general election; we think this has a very good chance of happening.

The State Board of Elections is also projecting the worst case scenarios involving many candidates running for appellate court seats in the primary, with some candidates spending huge amounts that trigger public financing "rescue" funds for others enrolled in the program. You may see some of these numbers--as much as $5 million or $6 million. This is not likely, but several hundred thousand dollars in rescue money may well be needed.

There is also another seat that may become open on the Supreme Court after the primary--the seat now occupied by Bob Orr, who says he is leaving in the late summer. But there are many questions about how candidates for that seat would qualify for public funding; on the one hand, candidates can't officially run for that seat until it becomes vacant, but the public financing law sets out a procedure that requires candidates to get all their qualifying donations before the primary election date. This could be a matter settled by new legislation passed in the short session or by regulations adopted by the State Board of Elections.

Legislative action
Reformers will be seeking some changes in the Judicial Campaign Reform Act in the short legislative session that begins on May 10, including changes to make it plain what the check-off is all about and some ways to get more money into the program.

As you probably know, our biggest champion in the General Assembly--Sen. Wib Gulley--has resigned his seat to take a position as general counsel for the Triangle Transit Authority. We will greatly miss Sen. Gulley. He understood and supported the outside organizing efforts and had the skills to get things done on the inside, and he was truly responsive to the reform community's goals and strategies. Fortunately, Sen. Gulley helped cultivate broad support for judicial public financing inside the General Assembly. Sen. Tony Rand, Sen. Dan Clodfelter, and Rep. Bill Culpepper (the champion of the bill in the House) are committed to do all they can to make the program work, and they are some powerful allies to have on our side!

N.C. Voters for Clean Elections--the broad coalition promoting public financing alternatives--will also be working to pass SB 760, which authorizes larger cities and counties to sponsor their own public financing programs in local elections. That bill passed the state Senate last year and will be taken up in the House this May. It will not be easy to win, so every state House member needs to hear from constituents.

Ask the question
If you are at a candidates' forum or talking with candidates, please be sure to ask them if they support programs that offer alternative financing for candidates who demonstrate broad support among registered voters--voter-authorized public financing, or Voter-Owned Elections. Letting candidates know there is popular support for these programs is essential. And be sure to thank those who do the right thing; being a responsible public servant these days is no easy task--they don't often get credit for their hard work. EndBlock

Democracy North Carolina is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that uses research, organizing, coalition building, public education, and training to ensure full participation of all voters in the electoral process. For more information, call 967-9942, e-mail info@democracy-nc.org or go to www.democracy-nc.org .

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