For now, at least, beleaguered Chapel Hill taxpayers have one less expense to fund. The state General Assembly adjourned in July without enacting House Bill 1132 that would extend statutory authority for the town to continue its taxpayer-financed political campaigns, also known as the Voter Owned Election Program.

The lack of action will have little fiscal impact on the town at present. We don’t have local elections until 2013, and by that time, the state legislature could fish the bill out of committee, where about 200 other bills languish, and push it forward. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that one aspect of the politicians’ welfare program was unconstitutional – the part of the program that gave matching funds to candidates accepting public money if their opponents not accepting the government freebie were very successful with private fundraising.

Of the five candidates elected to council and mayoral seats in the 2011 election, only Donna Bell accepted money from the government-sourced gravy train. One successful candidate – Jim Ward – won without hitting up friends and family for donations or wresting funds from unwilling taxpayers. He evidently spent nothing but the filing fee. No yard signs; no lapel buttons; no direct mail pieces, mean-spirited or otherwise; not even a Twitter account.

The VOE program was well-intentioned. Money wins elections, and just because someone is skilled at asking for handouts or has a direct line to the deep pockets of family or friends doesn’t mean that candidate is the right person for political office. And candidates who represent the interests of the working class and others on a tight budget shouldn’t be penalized because of their target supporters’ inability to give generously to political causes.

But the town already has a long list of wasteful spending obligations that fall low on the taxpayers’ priority list but still must be paid. Think of the money we are shelling out to a private law firm to defend the town’s decision to hire a private consulting firm to justify firing two town employees lobbying for unionization. Think of the money we will have to pay, above and beyond the $7 million already paid to the for-profit developer, to buy parking spaces for the affordable housing units in the developer’s high-rise. Think of the money we will spend for signs warning motorists of our cell phone ordinance that they don’t actually have to obey.

Maybe, instead of spending thousands of dollars in handouts to fundraising-impaired candidates, we could hire Ward to put on a tutorial that explains his success.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Pretty much the worst grab-bag of arguments that I’ve seen in a long time. Getting rid of public financing is supposed to help working class candidates? Get rid of public financing because the town has some wasteful programs – how does that follow? Only family and friends supported publicly-financed candidates? Who won?

    Please take some summer courses in journalism school. (But thanks – sincere – for reporting on the town council.)

  2. Terri Buckner

     /  July 24, 2012

    C’mon George. It’s entirely possible to support the concept of voter-owned elections (which I do) but recognize that Chapel Hill has never been a good candidate for the experiment. To the best of my recollection, Jason Baker is the only candidate who actually needed VOE in order to run for office and he lost. The others who used it either have personal sources of wealth or already had name recognition which is more important than cash as Jim Ward has shown.

    Campaign money has never been an issue in Chapel Hill or Carrboro politics. The highest price election in the town’s history came about after VOE was instituted.

    VOE hasn’t brought more diversity to council as it was intended to do either. It might in other communities, but as long CH council meetings last 6+ hours and the outside time obligations make it difficult for someone to work a full time job and have quality time with family, campaign money isn’t the source of our problem. Until time commitments are addressed, we could double or even triple the public funds for campaigning and still wouldn’t attract working class citizens to the job.

    As for Nancy’s journalistic skills, I appreciate the fact that she is willing to step outside the main stream and challenge certain “progressive” issues like VOE. I get incredibly tired of the attitude that anyone has the political courage to step on “progressive” toes, like Nancy and Matt C do, is either conservative or inept.

  3. DOM

     /  July 25, 2012

    Well said, Terri.

  4. Anita Badrock

     /  July 25, 2012

    Ditto Terri.

    And I have to say that I personally do not understand why Council meetings run so long. I think this is a real problem that the Council should spend some of its lengthy meetings addressing. I’ve regularly attended Council meetings in Asheville and they don’t last this long–and Asheville sure has plenty of business to attend to, a very active citizenry, and is considered a pretty groovy and happening place by most.

    The length of meetings is a real barrier to true citizen participation.

  5. JWW

     /  July 26, 2012

    “VOE hasn’t brought more diversity to council as it was intended to do either. ”

    I am usually unclear what folks mean when they use the word “diversity”. Are you simply talking about skin color differences?

    Or would “diversity” include religious affiliations and/or age differences and/or political viewpoint and/or socioeconomic and/or education attained or ??

  6. Nancy Oates

     /  July 26, 2012

    Good point, JWW. As I wrote in my column for last week’s The Weekly, when was the last time we had a Republican on council?

  7. Terri Buckner

     /  July 26, 2012

    To me, diversity means variation in ethnicity, political perspective, age, length of time living in town, socioeconomic status. I’m sure there are other important criteria too. Political perspective and socioeconomic status are most important to me,

  8. Nancy Oates

     /  July 26, 2012

    We definitely need someone on council who knows what it’s like to live on a budget, either through personal experience or a sensitivity to how tight money is for some folks, that a tax increase equivalent to “a couple of lattes a week” might mean giving up meat or shampoo or driving to Raleigh to have Sunday dinner with Mom. Plenty of people practice priority budgeting in their own lives; it would be nice for council to understand the importance of that, too.

  9. JWW

     /  July 27, 2012

    Interesting replies to the diversity question. Thank you.

  10. Nancy Oates

     /  July 29, 2012
  11. …Republican? on the town counsel(s)?
    That is an interesting Q. Has there ever been one?
    I know there has never been on on the County Counsel.
    Yikes…but I suppose I should have guessed.