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Public financing under siege

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s foray into public financing of political campaigns may be nearing an end.

Supporters won’t want to acknowledge that possibility. They can even point to this state’s campaign financing program for appellate court races being held up as a model when in other states conflicts arise involving judges raising money from the folks for whom they decide court cases.

Model or not, the state’s public financing law is under attack on a couple fronts.

A Republican-controlled state legislature is no big fan of using taxpayer money or dedicated fees — whether given voluntarily or compelled — to spend on political campaigns.

The GOP’s position can’t be explained away as just an aversion that might help Republican candidates gain political advantage.

From a philosophical perspective, requiring that either taxes or professional fees go to political ads that the payer may not agree with looks an awful lot like compelled political speech. And, really, who would want to know that their money went to pay for some of the garbage that shows up in 30- and 60-second TV spots in the weeks preceding every election?

It came as little surprise when the state House passed legislation in June to repeal public financing for three statewide races: state auditor, schools superintendent and insurance commissioner. The Senate has yet to take up the bill, but could during a reconvened legislative session later this summer.

Public financing of judicial races, with the money coming from a fee imposed on lawyers, wasn’t as big of a target for Republican legislators.

A decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, striking down a provision in Arizona public financing law, could undermine some support for that part of North Carolina’s public financing program as well.

The high court‘s ruling found that a matching-funds provision of the Arizona law was unconstitutional. The matching-funds rule allows for publicly financed candidates, who agree to spending limits, to get more money when a privately financed opponent ramps up his or her spending.

North Carolina has a similar matching-funds provision in its law.

In ruling against the Arizona law, Chief Justice John Roberts said the additional money could create a disincentive for privately financed candidates to exercise their free speech rights by spending more money.

Roberts specifically noted that the decision did not “call into question the wisdom of public financing.”

The effect, though, would be to allow a privately financed candidate to vastly outspend a candidate who is publicly financed. The decision is also another indication that the Supreme Court sees some (the wealthy) as having greater free speech rights than others (the not-so-wealthy.)

Supporters of North Carolina’s public financing law point out that judicial races deserve special protections because court cases should be decided by the law and not by political considerations.

They may be right.

It still doesn’t mean that the law won’t soon be under more scrutiny and more attack.

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

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