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Public financing for judicial candidates faces opposition from Senate leaders, McCrory

RALEIGH Advocates of North Carolina’s public financing program for judicial candidates ramped up their efforts to keep it Wednesday in the face of opposition from Senate Republican leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory.

Among other things, they distributed a letter signed by three former governors and more than 200 business leaders – many from Charlotte – in support of the nearly decade-old program.

At issue is the program that offers candidates for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals public money for their campaigns. Supporters say it helps immunize judges from the influence of well-financed special interests.

Last year all eight statewide judicial candidates took the money, which comes from voluntary tax check-offs and annual fees on attorneys.

But like the governor’s budget proposal, the budget tentatively approved Wednesday by the Senate would essentially kill the program. Critics say it doesn’t work.

“We respectfully disagree” with supporters, McCrory told the Observer on Wednesday. “First of all, I don’t think the public financing concept has been effective at either the federal or state level.” The governor said even President Barack Obama refused to accept public financing during both his presidential runs “because there are so many ways to go around it.” His 2012 challenger, Mitt Romney, also opted out of the system both times he ran for president.

“Like running for City Council, you ought to be able to raise your own money.”

Other critics said court rulings that have opened up new channels of funding campaigns have muted the impact of public financing.

Last year, for example, two state Supreme Court candidates each got about $240,000 in public money. But outside groups spent $2.6 million on the race, $2.3 million of it backing incumbent Paul Newby. Only the governor’s race drew more outside money.

But Bob Phillips of Common Cause and a group called North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections said the program is “doing exactly what we want.”

“We’ve got a program that has a proven track record of keeping special-interest money out of judicial elections,” he said.

New state elections director Kim Strach said the program has been popular.

“Most candidates use it every election,” she said.

Voicing support for the program are former Govs. Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin, both Republicans, and Democrat Jim Hunt. Other signers included former Charlotte Mayor Eddie Knox, attorneys Russell Robinson and Ray Farris, and broadcast executive Jim Babb.

Phillips convened a breakfast meeting Wednesday morning at downtown Raleigh’s Cardinal with Chief Justice Sarah Parker, Justice Bob Edmunds and several appeals court judges. They met with two advocates of public financing from West Virginia.

One was John McCuskey, a former member of the West Virginia Supreme Court. Later he and his son J.B., a lawmaker from that state, spoke at a special meeting of the House Elections Committee.

They described how West Virginia used North Carolina’s program as a model for its own.

“The model for us has worked,” John McCuskey told the panel. “We think it’s going to enhance the reputation of the judiciary in West Virginia.”

Elections Committee Chairman David Lewis, a Republican from Dunn, said later that although he favors keeping the program, he’s not sure whether it will survive.

“There are ongoing conversations,” he said.

For example, he said, they may raise the threshold on how much candidates have to raise to qualify for the public money. Now it’s about $80,000.

“If the program survives, the mechanics of it will probably change,” Lewis said.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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