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In the General Assembly, public financing is under attack

RALEIGH — Edgar Starnes is right.

Starnes is a longtime Republican state legislator from Caldwell County. Asked recently by The Charlotte Observer about North Carolina’s public campaign-finance program, he replied that candidates for elected office ought to “go out and raise money the old-fashioned way.”

Yep, they should, in $50 and $100 increments, from folks back in their community, at barbecues and oyster roasts.

Or what about collecting checks for $2,000 and $4,000 from well-heeled business people back in the district? That kind of fund-raising, too, seems quaint these days.

The U.S. Supreme Court, for more than 30 years, has been deciding that raising campaign money the old-fashioned way is just, well, old-fashioned.

Who needs to hold a fish fry and mingle with the commoners back home when corporations are people, too, you know?

Then there are the stifled billionaires among us. Why shouldn’t they be able to spend any amount of money broadcasting horrible things about candidates? Those broadcast messages have nothing to do with trying to influence an election. They said so.

It’s been against this backdrop of the courts’ erosion of the political power of the individual that North Carolina has turned to public financing of campaigns, attempting to lessen the corrupting influence of campaign cash.

In 2004, legislators began a system of public finance for candidates running for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. For the 2008 election, lawmakers expanded the program to cover three executive branch offices.

Starnes has introduced one of two bills to do away with the public-financing program, which relies on lawyer fees and tax check-offs for its funding.

Advocates of the program are gearing up for a fight, but it may not matter.

The nation’s high court looks like it is about to strike down an Arizona public-financing law. Chief Justice John Roberts seems to believe that trying to put candidates on some kind of equal footing during any part of the campaign process amounts to communism.

The court has previously questioned features in other public-financing laws.

As I’ve made clear in this column previously, public financing is not an ideal answer to the growing sums of special-interest money that pollute political decision-making in this country.

The courts were destined to have problems with the programs. Republican objections — when based on ideology and not part of an attempt to gain political advantage — are also understandable.

Having the public, or segments of the public, pay for some of the garbage that pops up on 30- and 60-second ads every two years is odious.

The better alternative are judges who recognize that free-speech rights, at least as they’ve been interpreted, can and do conflict with other rights, like one-man, one-vote.

Supporting the proposition that elections run off of unfettered corporate money is a superior system to those funded by fish fries is nothing but an endorsement of plutocracy, undermining the very ideals of the nation’s founding.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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