Opinion: Daily Journal

Unpopular — And Rightly So

RALEIGH – “Would it make you more or less likely to vote for a state legislator if you knew he voted both to raise your taxes and to give millions of tax dollars to politicians to fund their campaigns?”

If you’d answer this poll question with “more likely,” then you are probably on the political left. You are also way out of step with the rest of North Carolina.

As I predicted a couple of months ago, self-styled campaign-finance reformers are latching onto state and federal investigations of former Gov. Mike Easley as justification to expand North Carolina’s system of taxpayer funding for political campaigns. Currently, the state encompasses judicial races and a few statewide races. Liberals would like to expand it further to include state and local candidates.

They’ve even fooled themselves into believing that the cause is a popular one, pointing to a Public Policy Polling survey last month showing 65 percent support for a program “a limited amount of public funds” to North Carolina candidates.

Question wording is everything. Because we use the term “public” to describe all sorts of activities, inside and outside of government, it is not automatically interpreted by voters as synonymous with “taxpayer.” Public companies, for example, are not firms owned by taxpayers (except for the likes of for GM and Chrysler). Public charities are not necessarily funded by taxpayers. Public accommodations are typically private businesses. And so on.

Not surprisingly, the Civitas Institute has yielded strikingly different results by asking more pointed questions on the issue. For example, back in February Civitas asked this one: “The state of North Carolina currently gives millions of taxpayers dollars to candidates for some public offices to fund their campaigns. Do you think they should expand the program to more offices and give more dollars, leave it as it is, or stop giving money and let all candidates fund their own campaigns?”

It wasn’t even close. Only 3 percent agreed with the liberal positions that the program should be expanded, vs. 21 percent who said it shouldn’t and 73 percent who said it should go away altogether.

There’s a problem with the wording of this question, too. Some might interpret the phrase “let all candidates fund their own campaigns” to refer to wealthy, self-financing candidates rather than to all candidates who raise money voluntarily. But Civitas asked a previous question that didn’t use the same construction, back a couple of years ago: “Should the state use taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns for council of state elections, such as insurance commissioner and state auditor?”

Again, it wasn’t close. Only 10 percent said yes, with 84 percent saying no and the rest unsure. Obviously, avoiding the euphemism “public funds” is key if you want to reveal the electorate’s true sentiment about tax-funded campaigns.

The electorate happens to be exactly right. Coercing taxpayers to fund the campaigns of candidates with whom they may passionately disagree is the wrong solution to the wrong problem. Here are some reasons why:

• The existence of private funding for campaign isn’t the real cause of political corruption and would like make it worse. N.C. State political scientist Andy Taylor explained why in a recent Carolina Journal column:

…[E]fforts to push private dollars out of the formal system will greatly expand an existing opaque alternative campaign in which voters find it difficult to hold candidates accountable.

Much more money would be directed into the murky world of independent groups and funneled through parties — the North Carolina Democratic Party financed 20 percent of Perdue’s 2008 campaign as it is. The effect would be to obfuscate the link between candidate and contributor further.

The problem with elections is not private money; it’s transparency. We don’t need more regulation. We need more sunshine so that the public can witness the linkages between elected officials, campaign contributions, and public policy. It is knowledge that truly empowers the voter.

• To be consistent, campaign-finance reformers should favor applying their restrictions broadly. They don’t, which tells you something about their real objectives.

• North Carolina’s mechanism for taxpayer financing, which punishes candidates who don’t take the money, is clearly unconstitutional in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling. State lawmakers have a responsibility not to maintain or expand programs that violate the constitution.

In summary, expanding campaign welfare for politicians is an unpopular idea – and rightly so.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation