This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

December 28, 2005

Senator pushes publicly funded races

By The Associated Press

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler believes West Virginia voters have had it with excessive special interest spending on elections and it’s time to try publicly financed campaigns.

A voluntary system, he said, would free candidates from raising money so they could focus on getting their message out to voters.

“I find it a bit distasteful and nearly obscene that people are spending $100,000 to get elected to a job that pays $15,000,” said Kessler, D-Marshall.

During the legislative session that begins Jan. 11, Kessler’s committee will consider a pilot project that would allow candidates to use public money to run their 2008 political campaigns if they agree to abide by certain rules. Kessler said he isn’t sure if the pilot would be used for judicial or legislative candidates.

The Legislature has been considering variations on such a plan since 2002, but Kessler said it may have a better chance next session because of publicity surrounding political corruption scandals.

For example, former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is under indictment in Texas on charges of illegally funneling $190,000 in corporate donations to 2002 legislative candidates.

“It’s been successful in many other states,” Kessler said. “It is not mandatory. Those folks that choose to do it actually had a very high success rate getting elected.”

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell earlier this month signed legislation that establishes a voluntary publicly funded election system in that state. Connecticut’s Legislature is the first to pass such legislation for all statewide and legislative offices.

Maine, Vermont and Arizona have measures enacted by ballot initiative, although Vermont’s applies only to statewide offices. North Carolina has a system that applies to judicial races. New Mexico has publicly funded campaigns for a business regulatory commission. And New Jersey has a pilot project for two legislative districts, said Rick Bielke, communications director for Public Campaign, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C.

“I really think the American public is sick and tired of elections being about donors and not voters, and they do want clean elections,” Bielke said.

Kessler said his committee likely would use a previous year’s bill as a model for the West Virginia legislation.

But a coalition of groups supporting publicly funded campaigns will have someone introduce a new bill, said spokeswoman Julie Archer. The West Virginia-Citizen Action Group, environmental groups, the ACT Foundation, AFL-CIO and the Council of Churches are proposing a system for legislative candidates.

Under their proposal, candidates in single-member House districts would have to get $5 donations from 100 people to qualify to receive $7,500 in public money for a primary and an additional $7,500 for a general election. If they choose to accept public money, they could not accept any more donations or spend any of their own money, Archer said.

If the candidate was outspent by an opponent not participating in the publicly funded system, he or she could receive more money, up to three times their original allotment. The amount would vary according to how much the opponent spent.

Candidates in multimember House districts and senators, because they represent more people, would have to obtain more $5 donations and would receive more public money.

The amount of donations and spending allotments would vary by district.

House candidates also could raise up to $2,000 and Senate candidates $5,000 in $100 “seed money” contributions during the period before a campaign when they are deciding whether to run. The coalition doesn’t want a pilot project before enactment. Their bill would go into effect in 2010 for single-member House districts and in 2012 for other legislative candidates.

“The idea for delaying it is to get it in place and have time to work out the rules and regulations and allow time for money to build up into the fund,” Archer said.

Secretary of State Betty Ireland supports any measure that would encourage more people to run for office, but has no position on specific proposals because she has not reviewed them, said her chief of staff, Ben Beakes.


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