Campaign finance bill sent to House finance - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Campaign finance bill sent to House finance

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A bill that would make permanent the state Supreme Court's campaign finance pilot project recently sailed its way through the House Judiciary Committee.

On to the House Finance Committee next, the bill would eliminate the matching funds provision that was in the original pilot program.

This provision was declared unconstitutional by West Virginia Supreme Court justices in a September 2012 ruling. In that decision, justices said the provision placed a "substantial burden on privately financed candidates' free speech rights."

Instead, the bill will incorporate the amount of contributions as a one-time contribution in primary and general elections, counsel explained during the March 12 House judiciary meeting.

Under this bill, a certified candidate in a contested primary election would receive $300,000 — instead of the $200,000 in the original bill — from campaign financing.

In an uncontested primary election, meanwhile, a certified candidate would receive $50,000 from the public financing fund. Both of these amounts would be deducted from the certified candidate's qualifying contributions.

For the general election, a certified candidate would receive up to $525,000 in a contested election and $35,000 in an uncontested race.

The bill also would provide that a candidate cannot collect exploratory contributions after filing a declaration of intent and it would limit the amount an individual may contribute during certain times.

One candidate — newly-elected state Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry — participated in this state Supreme Court's pilot project last year.

In most cases, state code prohibits public finance candidates from raising private contributions but justices made an exception for Loughry, allowing him to seek campaign contributions because of the unique set of circumstances in that case.

This bill takes this issue into account by increasing the level of funding to eliminate that fundraising option. Committee members said there is about $2.6 million left in the fund after the 2012 election and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has asked to take $1.5 million for supplemental appropriations.

However, there were questions of if that $1.5 million is taken out of that account that it would bring that amount down to $1 million.

Committee counsel said if the program was fully funded at $3 million, it would cover two publicly financed candidates in the general election and up to six people in the primary.

So where is that money coming from, asked Delegate Linda Longstreth, D-Marion.

Counsel answered that officials are looking at ways to fund it, coming up with ideas including looking into the unclaimed property fund, increased court filing costs and increased bar fees.

"This opens it up for persons who are not born wealthy or have acquired substantial wealth in their lifetime," said Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia. "I think we should make it permanent."

Delegate Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia, said her concern is the future of program's funding and if it was enough to make it an impartial election.

"That's a decision for this body, or whatever body is here immediately prior to the 2016 election and any Legislatures going forward to make a determination whether or not … this is an important enough investment to protect the judiciary," Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, said.

Frich asked if the nonpartisan election of judges was on the horizon and whether that would help create an impartial state Supreme Court.

Lane answered that "unfortunately, that issue isn't before us," adding, "at this point, we just have campaign financing before us."

Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson asked if it would be a good idea to have full transparency for money in state Supreme Court races, so third parties could disclose a source of funds.

Lane said he is certainly supportive of disclosure.  

"I wouldn't say the Constitution needs amended to stake out the position that restricts First Amendment rights to somehow overturn Citizens United," Lane answered.