Above: Audio of Tuesday’s debate in the N.C. House over a proposed budget amendment that would have ended the state’s judicial public financing program. (Provided by VoterRadio.com, the clip runs 24 minutes.)
Toward the conclusion of a daylong debate over the N.C. House version of the state budget, tensions rose when Rep. Edgar Starnes (R-Caldwell) brought forward a last-minute amendment Tuesday evening that would have repealed North Carolina’s public financing program for appellate-court elections.
The amendment set off a heated debate over the attempt to scuttle the nine-year-old judicial public financing program without a committee hearing.
“Now public financing may or may not should live, but it ought to be given a far more decent burial than you’re attempting to do today,” said Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland). “A subterfuge, hidden amendment at the last second on the floor, never sent to a committee, never heard. Shame, shame on this body. Is this truly transparency?”
Rep. Stephen LaRoque (R-Greene, Lenoir, Wayne) accused Glazier of hypocrisy for protesting the Starnes amendment. LaRoque said Democrats used similar maneuvers when they were in the majority. But Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), chair of the House Elections Committee, agreed with Glazier’s argument that the Starnes amendment would bypass proper debate on the issue.
“Rep. Glazier has pointed out that this is a pretty serious policy change without a committee hearing,” Lewis wrote on his Facebook page during the debate. “While I think this discussion is needed and question the constitutional basis of using tax money to support candidates, Rep. Glazier was right about the process.”
Ultimately, Starnes pulled the proposed amendment without a vote, noting that he had already filed a separate bill (H452) that would repeal the state’s public financing program. He said he would instead push for that measure through the committee process.
Created as part of the 2002 Judicial Campaign Reform Act, the program allows candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals to opt into public campaign financing, in exchange for agreeing to strict fund raising and spending limits. The program is funded through a voluntary $3 check-off option on the state income tax form and via a $50 annual fee paid by North Carolina attorneys.
In addition to offering public campaign financing, the program pays for a voter guide, which is mailed to voters across the state in the weeks before Election Day. The Starnes amendment would have taken the $4 million designated by taxpayers for the public financing program and moved it to the general fund, while keeping in place $2 million in attorney fees to be used for the voter guide.
A poll commissioned by the N.C. Center for Voter Education in February found that 94 percent of state voters believe campaign contributions can influence a judge’s decision. The survey also found that 49 percent of voters — including 50 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of independents — would be less likely to support a legislative candidate who wished to end the judicial public financing program. Twenty percent said they would be more likely to support such a candidate.