WASHINGTON -- In early 2011, after Republicans swept into power in both houses of the North Carolina state legislature, the conservative John Locke Foundation put out a list of 11 action items for the new conservative majority in the state capitol to enact in their first 100 days. One of those priorities was the ending of the judicial public financing system enacted in 2002.
In 2002, North Carolina became the first state to adopt judicial public financing. The opt-in system works by requiring candidates to raise $39,450 from 350 donors in increments between $10 and $500 to qualify. Once candidates have raised this amount of money, they can access funds provided by a special account run by the state so long as they cease other private fundraising.
Contentious arguments ensued in the legislature as the elimination of the program was proposed as an amendment to the annual budget and as a separate piece of legislation, but was never enacted.
Now, with the newly elected Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, the program is being targeted again. The governor's first budget proposal, released in March, includes the elimination the judicial public financing program. The governor's office did not respond to an immediate request for comment.
"We think it's very unfortunate that the governor and the legislature are considering doing away with the program," said Alicia Bannon, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, a supporter of public financing of elections. Bannon also noted that a number of bills have been introduced in the legislature to eliminate the program.
The inclusion of this provision is raising quite a few eyebrows across the state, as the governor's budget director is retail magnate Art Pope -- who also happens to be the largest political donor in North Carolina.
"Most of the attacks [against judicial public financing] were really coming from one source, and that's the political network that's largely funded by Art Pope in North Carolina," Chris Kromm, Director at the Institute for Southern Studies, a liberal non-profit in North Carolina, alleged.
These groups included the John Locke Foundation, the Civitas Institute and Americans for Prosperity. A 2006 report by the Foundation stated that the public financing program limited free speech and reduced the amount of information available for voters. It also stated that fundraising is "an integral part of the democratic process" because it measures a candidate's support prior to the election.
"Polls show that the public supports this program, and every candidate in judicial races in the last election entered into the system," Melissa Price Kromm, coalition director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, argued. "Why should the program be cut?"
The program's budget is approximately $4 million for the 2013-2014 election and is funded primarily by an annual $50 fee to attorneys in the state bar and a $3 voluntary contribution that North Carolina citizens can choose to make on their tax returns. Eliminating the program would likely save the state little money -- the governor's proposed budget exceeds $49 billion -- or allow the $4 million currently allocated to the program to be spent on other projects. Rather, eliminating the public financing option would likely end the revenue stream entirely.
If the program is eliminated, supporters say that business interests and attorneys arguing cases before judges will become the primary campaign contributors. One study shows that in 2002, the last election held without a public financing option, 73 percent of all judicial contributions came from special interests and attorneys. After the public financing system was adopted, that number dropped to 14 percent.
Pope, if previous contributions are any guide, should be expected to be among those donors putting big money into judicial elections if the public financing system is eliminated.
In the 2012 election, Pope and the constellation of groups he funds put hundreds of thousands of dollars into an independent effort to aid State Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby's reelection campaign against Democratic candidate Sam Ervin. Outside groups partially funded by Pope, freed from spending restraints by the 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, spent more than $2 million to help Newby to a 4-point victory and maintain the 4-3 conservative majority on the court.
Other groups spending big on the independent campaign to reelect Newby included RJ Reynolds Tobacco, groups seeking limits on medical lawsuit claims and those promoting school privatization.
That conservative court majority is vitally important for these business interests, and also for Republicans and conservative activists in the state. After the 2010 redistricting, the court's conservative tilt was a key interest for North Carolina Republicans, as it will be the final arbiter on redistricting plans that helped to create a friendlier map for Republicans across the state after the 2010 elections.
North Carolina is currently one of just two states -- the other being New Mexico -- to implement a full judicial public financing program. Wisconsin had a public financing system for judicial elections until conservatives repealed it in 2011. West Virginia currently operates a pilot program for public financing of judicial elections. Unlike North Carolina and Wisconsin, however, legislators in West Virginia are working on enacting a permanent judicial public financing program. A bill to do so passed the West Virginia House on April 3.