Local Politics

3 Statewide Offices to Get Campaign Funds From Taxpayers

Posted August 3, 2007 5:49 p.m. EDT
Updated August 3, 2007 6:55 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina taxpayers will help foot the bill next year when candidates run for three statewide offices.

Lawmakers on Thursday approved House Bill 1517, a pilot program to use public financing in the 2008 campaigns for state auditor, education superintendent and insurance commissioner. The system is already in place for statewide judicial seats.

Although some have criticized the effort as a threat to free speech by restricting private contributions and said it amounts to public welfare for politicians, advocates say it's a way for the people -- not special interests -- to control elections.

"By giving candidates a way to run their campaigns without going to the special interests, hopefully we can eliminate a lot of these conflicts of interests," said Chris Heagarty, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing the quality of elections in the state.

Candidates who opt in must raise between $26,000 and $200,000 on their own, and the contributions must come in $10 to $200 increments. Once that's accomplished, candidates would get a minimum of $300,000 in taxpayer money to fund their campaigns.

Advocates estimate publicly financed campaigns will cost about 8 cents per taxpayer.

Council of State members often raise money from the same people they regulate. For example, insurance agents are a major source of  campaign funding for Insurance Commissioner Jim Long, according to his campaign reports.

"He doesn't like that process, but until the process is reformed, he has to work within the rules," Assistant Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin said.

Goodwin, a former lawmaker from Richmond County, ran unsuccessfully for state labor commissioner in 2004. He said he spent more time raising money then talking about issues during the campaign.

"It's distasteful. It's uncomfortable, but it's unfortunately a necessary component of running for statewide office," he said.

Long, State Auditor Les Merritt and Superintendent of Education June Atkinson all say they support the public financing program.

Heagarty said polls show voters also favor testing the idea.

"People would actually go with the candidate using the taxpayer money simply because they're sick and tired of special interests," he said.