Gavel Grab

Article Examines Factors in Withdrawn Bid to Save NC Public Financing

A legislator who sought to rescue North Carolina’s public financing program for judicial elections with a House amendment, which he subsequently withdrew, has explained what happened behind the scenes.

Last week, there were media reports that Republican Rep. Jonathan Jordan (photo) sponsored an amendment that would have funded the program only through attorneys fees, while eliminating another funding stream — from a check-off on state income tax forms (see Gavel Grab). After Jordan was spotted in conversation with Art Pope, the governor’s budget director, outside the House chamber, the legislator withdrew his amendment and the House proceeded to a vote to eliminate funding for the program.

This week, Jordan talked to the Jefferson Post newspaper. He had gone to bat for two clean-election groups, Common Cause and the North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, to craft the compromise amendment, Jordan said. “I do see the difference in public campaign finance for judicial races versus special interest and corporate money,” he explained.

Jordan said the groups indicated to him there was tacit approval by Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, for the middle-road amendment. Then he ran into stiff resistance on the House floor. He  also had the visit with Pope, who Jordan said informed him that not only would McCrory not accept any public campaign financing, but that use of attorneys fees for the purpose would be unconstitutional, a view Pope claimed was backed by case law.

“I felt left out in the wind,” Jordan told the newspaper. He decided not to pursue his amendment.

Bob Phillips of Common Cause said he had understood “there was some kind of tacit signal” from the governor, and he said he believed Pope was wrong in saying case law bars use of attorneys fees for campaign financing. Phillips and Melissa Price Kromm of NCVCE commended Jordan’s efforts to craft a compromise.

Pope has opposed public campaign financing and has been a major financial backer of conservative legislators. He has run a network of advocacy campaigns. Jordan’s 2011 campaign received more than $100,000 from Pope and the affiliated groups, the newspaper said.

Both legislative chambers have approved versions of budget plans that effectively eliminate public financing of judicial elections. Justice at Stake Acting Executive Director Liz Seaton said last week, after the House vote:

“This action by the House sets the stage for North Carolinians to lose their judicial public financing program, a popular program that is used by candidates for the appellate court bench from both political parties and that enjoys broad bipartisan support.  Even worse, there are reports that this House action appears to be the result of personal lobbying of legislators by the state budget director, Art Pope, who is a major campaign contributor to these lawmakers.  If correct, that means campaign donor political influence is being used to kill a judicial public financing program designed to prevent campaign donor pressure on judges.”

A poll commissioned by the NC Center for Voter Education in May found that 67 percent of Republicans, 69 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of unaffiliated voters favored public financing for judicial races.

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