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It can be quite sobering to read international newspapers’ accounts of the U.S. health care conversation. All of this talk of death panels and euthanasia, forced abortions and abductions of fat children, seems even more absurd from the outside.

Gary Younge, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper in Britain, was in Raleigh Saturday at the Pro Health Reform rally and his account (published Sunday) provides one of these needed outside critical perspectives on the health care debate.

His column centers on the importance of political organizing in the health care debate. He argues that although the right has out-flanked reformers in recent weeks, the tide could be turning. He tells the story of the Durham4Obama organizing group, which over the last few months has transitioned from an Obama campaign meet-up to an independent political organizing group intent on exacting pressure on Obama, Sen. Kay Hagan, and anyone else necessary to pass real reform. This kind of grassroots, person-to-person organzing, Younge argues, is what is needed if health care reform is to succeed.

He writes:

The problem is not that the right were organised but that – with a few exceptions like Durham – the left has not been. At the very moment when [Obama] needed the “movement” that got him elected most, it appears to have largely stopped moving.

After reminding us of the raw human toll of the U.S. health care crisis (“Black infant mortality in Louisiana is on a par with Sri Lanka…[in] Washington DC, life expectancy is lower than the Gaza Strip”), Younge concludes that although health care reform can still be won, it will only happen if reform supporters ramp up their organizing and do the hard work of convincing members of the public.

He concludes:

A significant part of the country is desperate to be convinced and the battle for public opinion – which will ultimately determine how wavering congressmen vote – is finely balanced. “We’re not going to out-yell them,” says Fox. “So we have to out-organise them.”

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I was pleasantly surprised to wake up this morning to a different tenor in the N&O’s health care coverage. Instead of the artificially balanced, blood-seeking articles we’ve seen of late, there were several stories and columns providing fact-based, non-sensationalized assessments of the real issues underlying the problems with our nation’s current health care system.

The paper led with an above-the-fold story about the Republican Congressional leadership’s unwillingness to compromise on any reasonable health care proposal and why Democrats might be forced to pass needed reform legislation alone. The article focuses on how the so-called consensus-building moderates in the party are not participating meaningfully in the discussion and continue to peddle heinous falsehoods about the proposed legislation, including the lie that they include “death panels.”

The lead story in the State & Co. section highlighted yesterday’s Families USA report which found health care costs in North Carolina rising five times faster than wages. The report found that family coverage inflation had been especially drastic, rising 145% from 2000-2009.

And on today’s Op-Ed page there were three good opinion pieces that illustrated in different ways—for the poor, for the affluent, and for the elderly—why our current health care system is fundamentally broken and in need of reform.

Gene Nichol, director of the Center for Poverty and Opportunity and UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote about the devastating human cost of our nation’s for-profit, make shift health care system. He told the story of the thousands who showed up for treatment at a free clinic in Los Angeles, the tens of millions of uninsured and underinsured who have nowhere to turn for care, and a health care system that produces misery and devastation that rivals conditions in the Third World.

Froma Harrop, an editor at the Providence Journal, wrote about her experience with health care rationing from the private insurance industry. Treatment for her husband’s cancer was delayed for months because of insurance company stalling and indecisiveness, only coming in the end because of her connections to powerful people in the company. If someone with good health insurance in a well-connected position can’t get good health care in the private system, then who can? As she writes,

“death panels” already exist, and they have nothing to do with the government.”

And finally, the N&O printed a piece from the precociously syndicated NYTimes columnist Ross Douthat about how conservatives should support measures to control the cost of Medicare (instead of inflaming seniors’ fears with incendiary remarks) because the program’s projected future costs threaten the fiscal integrity of the federal government. He writes:

Medicare’s price tag, if trends continue, will make a mockery of the idea of limited government.

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Having an Insurance Commissioner who is willing to stand up to the insurance industry can save consumers tens of millions of dollars.

A settlement reached this morning between the insurance industry and the Dept. of Insurance reverses a 9.4% rate increase, bans all further increases into 2011, and requires insurance companies to return $50 million to consumers with interest.

That’s $102 in the pocket of an average driver in Durham, $92 for an average driver in Raleigh, according to the Department.

Simply put, North Carolinians would not be receiving these rebates if the Commissioner of Insurance had not been willing to spend months fighting the insurance industry’s proposed rate increase in court. If the Commissioner of Insurance was in the pocket of the insurance industry, we would certainly not have what the Department calculates to be the fifth lowest auto insurance rates in the country.

The fact that Commissioner of Insurance Wayne Goodwin ran under our state’s Voter-Owned Elections program last year helps ensure that we have an insurance regulatory head who is willing to stand up to one of the most powerful industries in the state . The program allowed Goodwin and his Republican opponent John Odom to raise less than 5% of their total campaign money from the insurance and other Department-regulated industries. Compare that with the 66% of campaign money former Commissioner of Insurance Jim Long received from the industry in 2004, according to a study done by NC Voters for Clean Elections.

So let’s do the math. NC consumers will save $50 million in insurance premiums this year, in part, because we have a state insurance commissioner who is not dependent on campaign money from the insurance industry. The program that facilitates this independence costs the taxpayers less than $800,000 per election cycle or $200,000 a year over four years. That’s a 25,000% return.

Now you might question whether Voter-Owned Elections is really what made the difference. After all, maybe a candidate who had received two-thirds of their money from the insurance industry would still have challenged the proposed insurance hikes, as Jim Long did for many years.

Maybe so. There are many good elected officials within our current system. But the question of influence and the perception of a conflict of interest would remain as long as that official was dependent on fundraising from the industry. We would wonder if the Commissioner had fought as hard knowing that he/she was going to have to ask for money from these same people two years later. We would question whether they had the same tenacity at the bargaining table. And we’d have to accept the fact that even when they were doing their very best to uphold the public interest, they were still likely being influenced in some way by the process of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from special interests.

It’s just human nature. Or a logistical/scheduling reality (how many hours do they spend fundraising at how many parties?). Raising that much money from a single industry would affect any of us, no matter our intentions.

And that’s where Voter-Owned Elections comes in and why its so great. It makes all of these questions and ambiguities moot. By eliminating the fundraising reliance on the insurance industry North Carolinians don’t have to wonder if the industry is using donations to gain undue influence. By taking away the mere possibility that an elected official’s conduct could be influenced by campaign donations, we all can have more confidence in government.

Hopefully the General Assembly will take this lesson to heart and pass SB-966: Expanded Voter-Owned Elections. The bill would expand the public financing option to five other Council of State races including Attorney General, State Treasurer, Secretary of State, Commissioner of Insurance, and Commissioner of Agriculture.

Not only would it allow state residents to benefit from better government, but as we learned today, it might also save all of us some hard cash.

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Thomas Jefferson’s raison d’être was to protect the taxpayers from the tyranny of public campaign financing?

The First Amendment was put in place to prevent government from financing elections?

Our democracy has worked fine for over 200 years without “government interference?

Not exactly things that (hopefully) you learned in history class and certainly untruths whose sheer inaccuracy is only outdone by its sheer weirdness (Jefferson as anachronistic campaign finance reform foe? Seriously?)

Yet these were the underlying assumptions used today by former FEC chairman Brad Smith when he spoke at the General Assembly about “the evils” of public campaign financing.

Smith was appointed to the FEC by George W. Bush in 2003 and became chairman in 2004. He is now the head of the Center for Competitive Politics, which as far as I can tell is an organization dedicated to weakening and eliminating most campaign finance laws. He was in Raleigh today to give a talk to the Federalist Society and to legislators about Davis v. FEC and what it means for public campaign financing (for the record, it means very little).

During the 45 minutes I listened to him speak, Smith barely mentioned the Davis decision or really the law at all (this from an election law expert!). Instead he stuck mostly to his fantastical history lesson, mixing in an occasional anecdote about public financing gone awry (ghost candidates, union donations, kickbacks, oh my!)….—what he acknowledged were occasional “public financing bloopers” (many of which were later corrected) in seas of success.

At times, he seemed to even like public campaign financing, acknowledging that public financing program’s don’t cost very much (“it really doesn’t cost that much when you compare it to other government spending”) and saying that he could see why someone might think the programs were harmless.

Yet despite his unaffected, calm tone, and his performed even-handedness, he still was asserting that public campaign financing was a really bad thing, that it threatened our basic liberty.

Why was it so bad? What evidence could he present?

His answer stemmed purely from right-wing ideology.

Like most free market fundamentalists who believe the government and any notion of “the public” has absolutely no legitimate role to play in society barring war and (blue collar) crime control, Smith believes public campaign financing is bad because, well, all government financing is bad.

It doesn’t matter how successful public financing has been, how many exciting new candidates have been able to run for office, how high or bipartisan the participation, or how much the program has reduced the role of special interests. In short, it doesn’t matter how good public campaign financing is for our democratic system. In his world, the facts do not matter. It will not work because it should not work.

That’s why Smith didn’t limit his assault to public campaign financing alone—something that would have made his argument much stronger. Like a true crusader, he was pure in his outlook, seeking total victory. Which in this case meant a call for the elimination of most campaign finance laws (“a system that’s opaque and not comprehensible to voters”) and the removal of all government regulation of campaign financing.

He even went as far as to attack the Progressive Era (yes early 20th century) reforms that made it illegal for corporations and unions to write candidates unlimited checks from their company’s or organization’s accounts: “We’ve tried campaign finance reform for the last 100 years and it hasn’t had much salutary effect,” he said.

This coming from the former head of the FEC, the chief entity charged with enforcing campaign finance law. A regulator who doesn’t believe in the regulation he’s been charged with. Remind us much of certain labor department heads, U.N. ambassadors, and FEMA directors?

Though I’m no historian, one thing I do remember learning in U.S. history class is what a mess the late 19th century was: the trusts with their stranglehold on Congress, Upton Sinclair’s accounts of human flesh being mixed in with ground beef, the violent union and farmer suppressions, and the deep-set corruption that stemmed from McKinley’s White House all the way down to the Chicago machine in city hall. At the center of all of these things was an unregulated campaign financing system that allowed the rich and powerful to do whatever they wanted with impunity if not outright government encouragement.

As bad as things are today, they were much worse back then. Campaign finance law is one reason things have gotten dramatically better, and it certainly has helped make possible many of the democratizing shifts that gave people more power: at the ballot, at the workplace, and in the household. With record spending by special interest groups, skyrocketing election costs, and an economic recession that was spawned at least in part by powerful interests gutting regulation, we need more tools and reform, not less—we need public campaign financing now more than ever. Which is why Smith’s ideological position, considering his former FEC chairmanship, is so peculiar.

If not public campaign financing, what would Smith have us do?

When asked to name one alternative solution he quibbled with the assertion itself (“Do you really think our elected officials are affected by their campaign contributors?”). When a Republican legislator countered that campaign money does influence candidates, he did finally acknowledge that it could be an issue (“Obviously money has some influence)” but in any case government couldn’t do anything about it.

While he was hemming and hawing, he continued to be pressed. What was his solution? Certainly this renowned election law attorney, this former head of the government’s most powerful campaign financing regulatory agency, this self-described campaign finance law expert had at least one idea for a solution.

Finally, he presented two things: the First Amendment (“The First Amendment is the solution. Allowing people to speak more is the solution… “) and disclosure.

That is, a “solution” that consists of two things that already exist. Two ideas for change that actually do not change anything at all.

And there was the answer. There was no solution. Things are just fine the way they are. Or to be more precise, things were just fine in back in the robber baron days before campaign finance reform and, to quote Grover Norquist, “Teddy Roosevelt and the socialists took over.”

Smith’s (and others) status-quo-preserving-position sees nothing wrong with the wealthy using their money to buy political influence and access or with PACs spending millions preserving tax loopholes for their industries and special preferences for their friends. Let the market decide. It will work its magic. If an elected official is bought by one special interest group, there’s nothing to stop another special interest group from coming and paying a higher price for that official’s loyalty. What could be a more perfect way to run politics than through the laws of supply and demand?

As Smith said, “We should just trust the voters to make the best choices,” while allowing whoever has a million bucks to pummel those voters with misinformation and scurrilous attack ads against their opponent.

Smith’s presentation was nothing more than a resuscitation of Candide’s Pangloss.

Despite the grave failures of the current campaign financing, the horrific consequences of a campaign financing system run amuck on display all around us, and the very real promise public campaign financing is offering in states like Maine, Arizona, Connecticut, and here in North Carolina, Smith still believes that there is no alternative, that the current system is the best that it could ever be. In Smith’s mind, a system where private interests run government, is indeed “the best of all possible worlds.”

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Rep. Rick Glazier will introduce a bill to expand Voter-Owned Elections to five additional offices next week.

The bill would enlarge the successful program to include every Council of State office except for the Governor and Lt. Governor. It’s a needed solution whose time has come.

Yet very interestingly, before the bill has even been debated in committee, Council of State public financing is already receiving significant coverage. Papers across the state have run editorials endorsing Council of State public financing, without prompting. And opinion leaders across the ideological spectrum seem increasingly open to the idea. In fact, Voter-Owned Elections is increasingly catching on.

Check out this editorial from the N&O, this supportive column from Scott Mooneyham, and this feature piece from the Fayetteville Observer, just as three examples.

How did this once obscure idea of Voter-Owned Elections become relatively mainstream?

I think the primary reason is the fact that the program has worked. Voter-Owned Elections have widened candidate participation, increased grassroots campaigning, and most importantly dramatically reduced the role of special interests in elections for the races where it is available.

Before the program, 73% of appellate judge’s campaign money used to come from lawyers or litigation-interested groups. Now its just 14%. In 2004, 66% of the itemized money raised by Comm. of Insurance Jim Long came from the insurance industry or other groups regulated by the insurance department. Last year, that number dropped to less than 5% for Commissioner of Insurance Wayne Goodwin, primarily because of the program.

These are real results. This is a real shift in the role of special interests in our elections.

Another big factor is time. We’ve now had three election cycles of Voter-Owned Elections for judges and one for Council of State. The fact that its been in place for awhile makes a big difference in its perception. There are now dozens of people who have used and enjoyed the benefits of the program. These folks can speak first-hand about why Voter-Owned Elections is a good thing and convince fellow elected officials that it isn’t such a scary or dangerous concept.

It suddenly seems less scary if someone’s friend has used it and the sky didn’t fall. And the fact that you don’t have to pander as often to special interests and get to spend more time meeting average voters on the campaign trail (fundraising of any kind is not allowed from May to November), isn’t a turn off either.

As it turns out, most public servants do not enjoy spending hours on the phone a day asking people for money, and they are uncomfortable with the relationship and the perception of the relationship when they have to consider legislation that would affect those very people. So Voter-Owned Elections is a refreshing breath of air for them as well.

Finally, I think the political patriarchs of this state are realizing that the program isn’t necessarily unpopular with voters (in fact polls show that North Carolinians overwhelmingly support it, by 70-80%). If anything candidates can use Voter-Owned Elections as an effective campaign tool when they run for office (e.g. I am running without a single cent from PACs or money from outside this state … I’m funded by the people, etc… ). It doesn’t help Democrats or Republicans, just candidates who passionately represent their communities. This has diluted opposition.

Overall, these factors produces a mainstreaming effect on the perception of Voter-Owned Elections, making our job as reform advocates a little bit easier.

Of course this doesn’t mean our job has gotten easy. We still have an uphill battle when it comes to changing the way political power works in Raleigh. After all, there are many groups and individuals who have done quite well for themselves under the current rules and system. And we struggle at times with convincing folks that this is an investment that will actually save money for North Carolinians in the long run through fairer execution of the laws, less subsidies and tax loopholes for special interests, and priorities that better reflect the needs of North Carolinians. And there are still plenty of myths floating around that misrepresent how the program works. If we succeed this year in expanding the program, it’ll only be after a long-fought, drawn out battle that requires us to wield all of our power as an advocacy community.

But it is nice to see the momentum increasing and support for it coming from a wider range of sources.

What’s the lesson to be learned here?

Sometimes when something is a good idea, produces good results, and solves a real problem, it catches on in popularity.

Now let’s just hope we can use this popularity to get some legislation passed.