RALEIGH — A proposal for the public financing of some statewide political campaigns is headed for a quick and inglorious death, the victim of a quick-strike telephone campaign unleashed by conservative opponents.
The measure had been unveiled by Democratic leaders in the state Senate just one day earlier as the centerpiece of a major ethics bill.
The legislation was pulled from the Senate floor Wednesday moments before it had been scheduled for a vote. It was sent back to the Judiciary Committee, where the public financing measure is expected to be stripped out today, said Senate Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt.
On Tuesday, Nesbitt had boldly declared that "the days of pay-to-play are over."
By Wednesday, Nesbitt stepped back, saying public financing had never been considered among the most important parts of the ethics package. He instead emphasized provisions that strengthen access to government records and forbid elected officials from soliciting campaign donations from industries they regulate or state contractors.
"Voter-owned elections will come out," Nesbitt said. "It's all part of the process. Now we'll go back to committee and figure out what to do."
The speed of the proposal's demise shocked elections reform advocates who had long pushed for a public financing option, which had been lauded as the best way to diminish the influence of big money campaign donors over public policy.
The mostly Republican opponents of public financing had wasted no time this week hammering at what they saw as the measure's Achilles' heel. The money to pay for the campaigns would have been raised by imposing relatively modest new fees on the businesses and firms regulated by the elected offices involved - attorney general, state treasurer, agriculture commissioner, labor commissioner and secretary of state.
For example, candidates for secretary of state could have received campaign money through an extra $5 fee imposed when a new corporation is formed.
Within hours of the bill's introduction, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity produced automated phone calls featuring Pat McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor and Republican nominee for governor in 2008.
McCrory painted the proposed fees as a tax hike about to be imposed on businesses by Democrats.
"The state legislature and Gov. Perdue already raised your taxes over $1 billion this year," McCrory said in the recording. "And now they want to raise taxes on new businesses to fund political campaigns. With double-digit unemployment in North Carolina, we should not be raising taxes to fund political campaigns."
Dallas Woodhouse, the group's state director, said the calls were made to voters in the districts of eight Democratic senators, most of whom live in conservative-leaning areas. The call asked voters to call lawmakers about the issue and provided their phone numbers.
"Public financing is very popular with hard leftists in Raleigh, but when people back home found out about this, they reacted very viscerally and negatively," Woodhouse said. "And they burned up the phone lines."
Calls create 'firestorm'
The calls apparently had an effect, creating what Nesbitt referred to as a "firestorm."
"Overnight, the robocalls got started, and some of our members got uneasy," he said after the measure was pulled Wednesday. "They didn't get scared. But there were legitimate concerns about imposing fees on businesses in the current economic climate."
Bob Hall, director of the group Democracy North Carolina, which supports public financing, appeared dejected outside the Senate chamber.
"It's disappointing," Hall said. "Public financing protected the integrity of our system of government by addressing pay-to-play."
Republicans, however, were clearly happy the public financing language was about to be ditched. The day before, they had accused Democratic leaders of inserting the issue into what was supposed to be a bipartisan bill, potentially forcing Republicans to vote against an ethics package that they otherwise could support.
"I appreciate they pulled it from the floor," said a smiling Sen. Phil Berger of Eden, the GOP leader in the Senate. "This ought to be a bipartisan effort."
Democrats control both houses of the legislature, but Republicans are optimistic about their chances of picking up seats in the fall.
Joe Sinsheimer, a Democratic consultant-turned-watchdog, said the failure to get public financing through the Senate shows how skittish incumbent lawmakers have become about any legislation considered controversial. It also raises serious questions about how the bill had been handled by Democratic leaders, he said.
Nesbitt became majority leader last year at the departure of Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat known for pulling levers of power to get his agenda passed.
The Asheville lawmaker has been more open and transparent than his predecessor, but Sinsheimer wondered whether Nesbitt may also be less effective.
"It's tough to imagine this happening to Tony Rand," Sinsheimer said.
Staff writer Benjamin Niolet contributed to this report.
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