04/14/04 — Section on state tax forms easy to overlook

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Section on state tax forms easy to overlook

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on April 14, 2004 1:56 PM

A new section on N.C. tax forms is small and easy to overlook, especially in the last-minute rush to file.

So representatives of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections are making a push this week to make sure people notice the section labeled "N.C. Public Campaign Financing Fund." People have the option of contributing $3 apiece to the fund without affecting their tax payment.

The "Find the Mystery Box" tour stopped at the Goldsboro library Monday morning. It will pass through 45 cities by Thursday, the deadline for filing state and federal tax forms.

So far, the group has found the public is ill-informed about the choice.

"There's been a lot of confusion about it," said Beth Messersmith, co-director of Democracy North Carolina. "People think it's the same as presidential financing. Even many tax preparers don't know what it is.

"It's a huge problem. People should at least have the chance to make an informed decision."

The N.C. General Assembly created the fund as a way to improve judicial elections. Contributions will be used this year to produce a voter guide with information about the courts and judicial candidates. Candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals can receive assistance if they accept strict spending and fund-raising limits.

The new law was intended to lessen the need for judicial candidates to seek contributions from lawyers who might be appearing in their courts.

N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, a coalition of 35 organizations working for election reform, worked for the legislation and now is trying to ensure its success. It organized the tour and has also been running television ads featuring former Govs. Jim Hunt and Jim Holshouser.

"Our basic message is 'Don't turn in your tax form until you find the box and understand what it means," said Adam Sotak of Democracy North Carolina, the tour's organizer.

Marking the form does not increase taxes due, nor does it decrease a refund. It simply earmarks taxes already being paid, for the new fund.

But people waiting at the library Monday morning for tax preparation were unfamiliar with the new option.

"I don't know enough about it," said Cleo A. Grady of the Grantham community. "I'd like to know more about what the money would be used for before I'd contribute."

Trenton Cantrell of Goldsboro said he hadn't heard of the fund. He would be unlikely to contribute, he added. "I think it'd lower my tax refund or make me have to pay more."

Hilda Rouse of Goldsboro, a member of the executive committee of the state NAACP, said that she has distributed more than 1,000 brochures here to educate people about the fund.

And Eva Wilson, a League of Women Voters member, has also handed out information.

The fund is an important first step, Ms. Messersmith said. "In North Carolina, we could be a leader among states, especially those in the Southeast, and say our officials are not for sale," Ms. Messersmith said.

"We hope they're not," Mrs. Rouse added. "We can do our little bit to help."

A bipartisan panel, headed by Campbell University Law School's Dean Willis Whichard, oversees the fund, along with the State Board of Elections.

For more information, call 1-888-OUR-VOTE or go to www.ncjudges.org.