This op-ed orginally appeared in the Charlotte Observer on March 6, 2009. It is co-written by Francis De Luca and Sean Parnell
In North Carolina, the goo-goo crowd is back. So-called “good government” groups are lobbying to expand the state’s misnamed “voter-owned” system to cover more elected offices. Gov. Bev Perdue has proposed extending this scheme to the governor’s race through an endowment. A bill, House Bill 120, has even been introduced to publicly finance local elections.
State Treasurer Janet Cowell joined the welfare for politicians’ bandwagon, calling for her office to be added to the system through Senate Bill 20. “I’m willing to race against someone without an incumbent’s advantage” in raising money, she bragged to state media.
Cowell mischaracterizes the advantages of incumbency. Yes, incumbents raise lots of money, but they also have high name identification, media connections, support provided by government workers and the backing of the political establishment. Under the current system, which has worked for over 200 years, challengers have the opportunity to raise enough money to effectively compete against an entrenched incumbent.
Expanding “voter-owned” elections is opposed by North Carolinians. In a February 2009 poll by the Civitas Institute, 73 percent of voters said candidates should fund their own campaigns while only 3 percent said to expand the program. Another 21 percent said to “leave it as it is.” Less than one-quarter of N.C. voters think the “voter-owned” elections program should even exist.
This “welfare for politicians” scheme doesn’t just waste taxpayer dollars and lead to greater incumbent protection, it also fails to address any real or perceived corruption or improve how well a state is run. Recent research by the Center for Competitive Politics found no link between campaign contribution limits and corruption, showing the futility of trying to clean up politics by limiting citizens’ rights to support candidates of their choice.
Governing Magazine and the Pew Center on the States grade all 50 states each year for how well their state government is managed. In 2008, two of the top three were Virginia and Utah, which have virtually no limits on campaign giving. Meanwhile, the two states that have embraced “voter-owned” received a B- (Arizona) and a C (Maine).
Supporters of taxpayer financing tout it as a way to sanitize politics from the nefarious aims of “special interests” (never mind that interest groups are merely citizens organized to petition their government or that ‘voter-owned’ advocates are themselves members of such groups), but such promises fail for a number of reasons.
First, voter-owned can’t curtail the influence of independent advocacy groups financing political ads because such speech is protected under the First Amendment.
Second, business groups, labor unions and groups of citizens are still able to support favored candidates, and often help to raise the needed qualifying contributions for candidates in the states that have adopted these schemes. Taxpayer dollars are simply used to leverage and magnify the support these groups give to candidates, who continue to be grateful for the financial backing, but also for the manpower — phone calls, door knocking, grunt work — that such groups provide.
Consider Arizona, former Gov. Janet Napolitano signed an executive order sought by labor unions as she was leaving office. Unions had collected about a quarter of the needed contributions for her to qualify for millions of taxpayer dollars. Many accused her of paying back the unions for their support.
As the Napolitano incident illustrates, “voter-owned” does little to erase the idea that officeholders are beholden to campaign supporters, one of the main arguments for such programs.
Similarly, in New Jersey the Center for Competitive Politics surveyed donors to “clean” candidates and found nearly half of all donors were affiliated with organized interest groups, primarily from two unions – the National Rifle Association, Sierra Club – and the statewide pro-life and pro-choice groups.
Proponents still claim public financing will reduce the influence of special interests and point to the state’s “clean” judicial campaigns as evidence of success. Yet in the 2006 campaign, over $250,000 of independent television ads touting their four preferred candidates streamed into voters’ living rooms in the last week before the election, paid for by the 527 group FairJudges.net, which received funding from the Democratic Party, trial lawyers, unions and wealthy donors. All four candidates won.
Campaigns funded by taxpayer dollars stifle free speech and limits the citizens’ voices while doing nothing to address any real or perceived corruption and supposed undue influence by organized interest groups. Such campaigns aren’t “voter owned,” they’re government run. North Carolinians should reject this effort to allow politicians to pay for their campaign ads and consultants on the taxpayers’ dime.
Sean Parnell is the President of the Center for Competitive Politics based in Alexandria, VA
Francis De Luca is the Executive Director of the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, NC