RALEIGH – North Carolinians have plenty of reasons to be angry at the conduct of their government.
In recent years, a speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives, a state agriculture commissioner, a congressman and former majority whip of the N.C. Senate, two other state legislators, and several sheriffs have gone to prison for serious crimes. Several other appointed officials have paid fines or served prison time for taking bribes.
Furthermore, former Gov. Mike Easley and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards are still under federal investigation for possible criminal wrongdoing. In Easley’s case, an indictment appears imminent.
Recognizing this recent history of corruption and other official acts that were unethical even when they weren’t illegal, Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly recognized early this year that it would be wise to enact a broadly supported set of ethics reforms. It made sense to require more sunshine on the relationship between political appointments and campaign contributions, reduce the ability of special interests to pull strings in secret, and strengthen public confidence that government isn’t simply being used for the financial benefit or political aggrandizement of state politicians.
Now that Senate leaders have unveiled their “ethics” package, however, it has become obvious that the bill is a sham. The true reforms in the measure are welcome but modest, while the most consequential part – to force taxpayers to pay for even more political campaigns – is deeply unethical and a gross insult to North Carolina voters who strongly oppose handouts to political candidates.
The bill’s proponents claim that taxpayer financing of campaigns is the only solution for the problem of political corruption. That’s utter nonsense.
As long as government has the power to impose massive taxes and regulations on private economic decisions, big-money interests will seek to influence the government’s decisions. If their dollars can’t flow directly to campaigns, the money will flow into independent political expenditures, insider lobbyists, outsider grassroots lobbying, political parties, media campaigns, and a host of other activities that are far less transparent to the voters than campaign donor lists are. So forcing taxpayers to fund political campaigns won’t “combat big money.” It will just reduce our freedom to decide which candidates and causes we will support, if any.
The argument for taxpayer-funded welfare for politicians isn’t just nonsensical. It’s grotesque. In the name of ethics, the General Assembly would be committing an unambiguously unethical act.
For one thing, it may seem odd to respond to the corruption of North Carolina’s rogues gallery of disgraced politicians by passing any new ethics laws. Obviously, their actions were already against the law. And elected officials shouldn’t have to face criminal penalties to be motivated to do the right thing.
But if the idea of state legislators passing another ethics bill sounds like a case of “Stop me before I sin again,” the current legislation sounds even worse: “Pay me or I’ll sin again.” What does that sound like to you?
Moreover, the funding system the new legislation would expand across the Council of State is already illegal under recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Its majority has ruled that if a state provides taxpayer subsidy to participating candidates and then increases the subsidy if nonparticipating candidates exceed certain spending thresholds, then such a policy amounts to coercing those nonparticipating candidates to reduce their political speech.
Only a few days ago, the Court intervened to stop Arizona from operating its own illegal matching-funds system during the current election cycle, while the justices consider a challenge to it. There is little doubt that the system will be struck down next year, just as in 2008 the Supreme Court struck down a federal policy that punished self-financing candidates by giving fundraising advantages to their opponents.
As JLF’s Daren Bakst has argued, North Carolina should be suspending the state’s matching-funds program, in deference to the Court’s decisions. Our public servant should not be operating an illegal program. It is a violation of their legal and ethical responsibilities.
And for members of the North Carolina General Assembly to consider expanding an illegal program – and in the name of “ethics,” no less – is outrageous and shameful.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.