Lobbying scandals are erupting all around us. There are the outrages of megalobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Republican K Street Project, forcing some Republican members of Congress (and their lawyers) to explain golf trips to Scotland and visits to his sky box. Closer to home, there’s the unfolding tale of Democratic N.C. House Speaker Jim Black and his connections to lobbyists pushing a state lottery, video poker and strip joints (see the Citizen column on page 11).

The degree to which corporate interests and their campaign contributions have taken over our government cannot be exaggerated. But we in North Carolina have taken the first steps toward cutting their influence. The best way to eliminate the financial power of special interests is publicly financed elections, and in 2004 we became the first state in the nation to take a significant step in that direction by creating the N.C. Public Campaign Fund to pay for statewide judicial races.

Every taxpayer has the opportunity to check-off a box that says Public Campaign Fund on their state income tax form, contributing $3 so candidates for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals don’t have to go around begging for unseemly campaign contributions. It doesn’t mean you pay an additional $3 in taxes, just that the money is dedicated to a fund that pays for creation of an independent Voter Guide and creates a source of campaign funds for candidates who accept strict fund-raising limits.

In 2004, 12 out of 16 candidates participated, including four out of five winners. Last year, the system raised $1.4 million, a 10 percent increase over the year before. And this year, more is needed because there are six hotly contested statewide judicial races on the ballot–to elect four Supreme Court justices and two judges to the Court of Appeals–and most of the candidates say they want to participate in the public financing program.

But there are kinks in the system, reports Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, the public watchdog group that was instrumental in creating the system. Two of three software companies the state approved for electronic filing didn’t initially offer the opportunity to check-off the Public Campaign Fund box, and the third didn’t explain it properly–all in violation of state law. Fixes are in the works, but it underscores the problems that can work against the program.

So be sure to look for the Public Campaign Fund box when you file, and check it off. If you use a tax preparer, be sure they know you want to participate in the program. We have nothing to lose–except judicial candidates putting themselves in the potential debt of big money interests that aren’t looking for decisions in the public interest, just their own.