RALEIGH, N.C. — Keeping special interest money out of campaign coffers is a hot issue in national and local politics. There is a new plan to limit the amount of influence an attorney or anyone else who goes before a judge can have in races for the bench, but it requires the public's help and an extra step on tax returns.
The plan is called the Public Campaign Financing Fund. State court judge candidates who opt in get $120,000 or more in public money to fund their campaigns. With four races for the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court this year, it is going to take a financial leap of faith to make it work.
Public service announcements now airing urge taxpayers to support public financing for judicial campaigns. The best of intentions come with questions about paying for it.
"The biggest issue is do we have the funding to make this program work?" State Board of Elections executive director Gary Bartlett said.
Bartlett said his office has $650,000 so far to fund state court races and distribute voter guides. He estimates $2 million to $3 million is needed.
"We need to hope additional monies come in," he said.
That is where state tax forms come in. Taxpayers will be asked to fill in a circle to contribute $3 to the fund. Marking "yes" will not change the return amount.
"Anytime you have a new program, if people don't do anything about it, they're going to be reluctant to support it," said Chris Heagarty of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education.
Despite that reluctance, Heagarty still believes the public will come through.
"We need anywhere from 8 to 12 percent public participation," he said.
State Appeals Court Judge Linda McGee agreed to take the chance for the sake of political fairness.
"You have to be somewhat concerned," she said. "Certainly, with a new program there is the possibility that the funding may not be there. We all understand that there is some risk."
Supporters of public financing still said they are optimistic that voters will fill in the "yes" box on their tax forms. If not, they will have to ask the Legislature to make up the difference.