Public financing stripped from reform bill

An aerial view of the North Carolina Senate floor

June 24, 2010 3:41:23 PM PDT
Senate Democratic leaders had planned to push a broad ethics, campaign finance and government reform bill through their chamber this week as time dwindles in this year's legislative session.

But they took it on the chin about the bill -- first from Republicans, then good-government advocates, voters and even rank-and-file Democrats. The dissatisfaction forced the leadership on Thursday to remove a provision expanding the state's voluntary public financing program -- a favorite in the campaign reform community -- and to delay a judiciary committee vote until at least early next week.

"It's a setback, it's a big setback," said Damon Circosta with the North Carolina Center for Voter Education after the public financing was removed.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, who is also the committee's chairman, said the delay isn't the death knell for a package that lawmakers and Gov. Beverly Perdue contend the public wants to restore confidence in a system met by a series of corruption and campaign finance investigations in recent years.

"The members are searching for an answer. That's what we do in a legislative body," said Nesbitt, D-Buncombe. "We deliberate and we search for an answer. And we find the correct one we'll run the bill."

There's lots in the package that most lawmakers support. It beefs up penalties for giving large amounts of unlawful campaign contributions, puts more government employees under ethics and gift ban rules, doubles the "cooling-off" period ex-lawmakers and former elected officials must wait to lobby state government and increases access to state personnel records.

But Nesbitt and other Democratic authors of the package got hit with complaints as soon as it came out Tuesday in committee.

Republicans argued they had no input in the bill and accused Democrats of politicizing ethics changes with a provision expanding the public financing option to candidates in five more Council of State seats. The landmark ethics and lobbying laws passed in 2006 with bipartisan support.

"Senate Democrats hijacked this bill for their own partisan political gain," Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a prepared statement before what was supposed to be Wednesday's floor vote.

The state already gives public funds to candidates for appellate courts and state auditor, insurance commissioner and schools superintendent who choose to agree to fundraising limits, but those laws have been passed largely along party lines. The programs are designed to reduce the perception that donors are giving to candidates to curry favor with them if they become elected officials.

Democrats in key districts started getting nervous when residents started getting automated calls from former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republicans' 2008 nominee for governor, who urged recipients to call their senators and ask them to oppose the bill. McCrory said Democrats had already raised taxes by $1 billion and now "they want to increase taxes on new businesses to fund political campaigns."

"This was a colossal mistake to try to pass this," said Dallas Woodhouse, North Carolina chapter leader of Americans for Prosperity, which sent out the calls.

The bill would have raised the filing fees for new corporations and limited liability companies by $5, with the extra proceeds going to a special campaign fund. Whether those are new taxes is subject to interpretation.

Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee, said his office got more than 70 calls and some e-mails from constituents about the bill in response to McCrory's message. Snow said he was already concerned about the extra fees but the calls reinforced his view that "it was a bad idea."

Other Democrats said Thursday more work needed to be done on the bill. Republicans said they planned to offer several other amendments, including portions of bills approved by a wide margin last year in the House and backed by campaign finance reform groups.

Nesbitt said this week he's not persuaded those House bills would work well in practice and raises constitutional questions by barring a small group of people from giving. He said Thursday he's willing to keep talking about the issues with colleagues but said there's not much time left to get a bill to Perdue's desk.

"This is a short session, and we're going home shortly," Nesbitt said.

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