This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

February 8, 2005

Election bills gain committee’s endorsement

By Phil Kabler
Staff writer

Bills intended to require greater financial disclosure and to curb contributions to so-called 527 organizations, and to launch a pilot project for publicly financed elections won endorsement from a legislative interim committee Monday.

One draft bill recommended by the Select Committee on Campaign Finance Reform would try to get a handle on the proliferation of ads by groups such as And For the Sake of the Kids, which bought huge amounts of negative advertising in last year’s Supreme Court election. The groups are called 527 groups, after the section of the Internal Revenue Service code that covers them.

Under the bill, any person or group spending more than $10,000 on election-related advertising would have to file a disclosure with the state Elections Commission detailing all expenditures over $1,000, as well as the names of contributors.

Currently, 527 groups have to file IRS reports, but usually not until after elections.

The bill limits individual contributions to all political organizations, defined in the bill to include 527 groups, to $1,000 per election.

The bill clarifies that there are no limits on what an individual may spend independently to influence the outcome of any election. That provision — adapted from a Vermont election law that was recently upheld in a federal appeals court — anticipates possible legal challenges on the grounds that spending caps violate free speech protections in the First Amendment.

Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, said he hoped the measure would restore some trust in the election process.

“It’s extremely unfortunate when one entity can spend millions of dollars against one candidate. It undermines the process,” he said.

Most notably in the 2004 election, Massey Energy President Don Blankenship gave more than $2.5 million to And For the Sake of the Kids for a campaign that targeted state Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, who lost his re-election bid.

A second draft bill would set up a pilot project to test the viability of publicly financed campaigns.

The project would include two senatorial districts and three single-member delegate districts, as selected by the Elections Commission from districts with open seats or where the incumbent volunteered to participate.

Candidates wishing to participate would first have to raise enough $5 “qualifying contributions.” The required number of contributions would vary from 75 in House races to 350 for candidates in Kanawha County’s 8th and 17th senatorial districts.

Qualified candidates would have to sign an agreement stipulating, among other things, that they would not accept additional contributions.

Those candidates would receive public funding for their campaigns, ranging from $7,500 in House races to $35,000 for candidates in the 8th and 17th senatorial districts.

Candidates whose opponents were not participating in the public financing would also be eligible for additional matching funds of up to 200 percent of the original funding. That money would be used to match their opponent’s spending, once the opponent exceeded the public financing cap.

Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said he believes the Legislature will be able to set aside $500,000 in the 2005-06 budget for “seed money” to help underwrite the pilot project.

Delegate Virginia Mahan, D-Summers, said that while she supports the concept of public financing of elections, she believes constituents in her district will have a difficult time accepting that funding, “when we’re cutting programs that benefit children and families.”

Steve White, with the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, said he’s confident the public will ultimately benefit if candidates are not required to raise and spend large sums of money to win election.

To contact staff writer Phil Kabler, use e-mail or call 348-1220.


Voter-Owned Elections

Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246