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Originally published Wednesday, December 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Gregoire wants public to pay for court races

Gov. Christine Gregoire wants to use taxpayer money to fund political campaigns for court seats. In the state budget she proposed Tuesday...

Seattle Times chief political reporter

OLYMPIA — Gov. Christine Gregoire wants to use taxpayer money to fund political campaigns for court seats.

In the state budget she proposed Tuesday, Gregoire included a $4.4 million pilot program to make public financing available to Supreme Court and Court of Appeals candidates. Candidates would have to raise a qualifying amount on their own and agree to follow a clean campaign code.

"For the public perception of judicial races, we need to do our dead-level best to make sure we have taken on some reform and taken the money out of it as best we can," Gregoire said.

The proposal is a reaction to this year's record-setting spending in Supreme Court races. Gregoire bemoaned the money that poured in from conservative groups and was countered with fundraising for the other side.

"Her plan is an incumbent-protection plan," said Tom McCabe, the executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington. The BIAW spent tens of thousands of dollars this year backing two challengers and one incumbent on the Supreme Court.

"If you can't tell the voters why you should replace somebody, then they'll never be replaced," he said.

Alex Hays, of the conservative-leaning Constitutional Law PAC, a political-action committee that funds campaigns, also opposes the plan.

"At the heart of it is a hostility to free speech," he said.

To qualify for public money, candidates for the Supreme Court would have to raise at least $10,000 and no more than $25,000 from at least 500 separate donors. They can't take money from political-action committees, unions or corporations.

Qualifying candidates would get $84,780 in public money to campaign in a primary election, and another $84,780 for the general election.

Additional matching money would be available based on how much a privately funded opponent had raised. A Supreme Court candidate could get no more than $678,240 in public money.

Charlie Wiggins, a Bainbridge Island attorney who heads the state chapter of the American Judicature Society, said public financing of court campaigns is a great idea.

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But he said the details need more attention.

In North Carolina, which has a similar plan, the state requires a higher threshold to qualify for funds and gives more money for campaigns.

If the numbers are too low, he said, "it's too easy for people to qualify and then you're giving away a lot of money to people who may not have very deep support."

David Postman: 360-236-8267 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

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