This article originally provided by The Charleston Daily Mail

January 26, 2007

Legislators split on odds for campaign finance bills

Justin D. Anderson
Daily Mail Staff

Backers of bills aimed at reducing the importance of money in campaigns for state offices are split on the issue's potential to gain any traction this year.

The bills would create the "West Virginia Public Campaign Financing Act" and authorize a special fund to help foot the campaign bill for candidates who qualify and volunteer for the program.

In past years, the sticking point has been how to fund the program, lawmakers say.

Some supporters feel the measure has a good chance this year because of potentially non-controversial funding sources, success stories in other states, new leadership in the House and some key legislative leaders being among the sponsors.

Others, including some of the bills' sponsors, are more reluctant to get their hopes up for actual passage. They say small pilot programs or subcommittee studies on the issue are more reasonable goals.

Meanwhile, state campaign costs continue to rise.

According to estimates from the Secretary of State's office, candidates for public office raised about $7.2 million for their campaigns during the 2006 elections. They spent $6.8 million.

"It's gotten a little bit insane," said Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, the lead sponsor of his chamber's version of the bill and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill's first stop.

A study of election costs in 2004 conducted by a group of non-profit advocacy groups found that candidates raised around $6 million, most from special interest groups.

Kessler says sometimes candidates feel beholden to these large contributors rather than to the concerns of their constituencies.

During last year's elections, in which all 100 seats in the House of Delegates were at stake, special interests played a more public role than usual. Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship spent millions of his own money on contributions to Republican candidates' campaigns, and statewide advertising blitzes critical of incumbent House Democrats.

While Blankenship's effort largely failed, it seemed to get the attention of a lot of candidates, some of whom banded together in a rare, collective effort to thwart the attacks. It also got the attention of the public. Some welcomed Blankenship's involvement, and some criticized it.

Blankenship declined to comment on the bills, saying he had not reviewed them.

Public financing advocates also say the high costs needed to mount a winning campaign keep some potential candidates from even bothering to file.

Norm Steenstra, who heads up the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, which was involved in drafting the bills this year, said a successful House campaign costs about $28,000 and a Senate campaign three times that much.

Steenstra said public campaign financing programs have worked well in Maine and Arizona. In 2004, nearly 80 percent of legislative candidates took part in the program, according to information gathered by Steenstra's group.

In Arizona during the same year, 58 percent of House candidates and 23 percent of Senate candidates participated.

Five other states have some level of public campaign financing.

Steenstra predicted the bill would get some attention in the Legislature this year, particularly because of the new House leadership.

New House Majority Leader Joe DeLong, D-Hancock, and Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, are sponsors of their chamber's version of the bill.

Wayne County Delegate Rick Thompson has replaced former Raleigh County Delegate Bob Kiss as House Speaker.

"They're much more open to new ideas," Steenstra said.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is one of the bill's sponsors. He thinks the program has a better chance of passage this year than in the past.

"Campaigns are becoming more and more expensive," McCabe said. "At some point, when do you say enough's enough?"

Another sponsor, Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, believes public financing would bring better government.

"It's an attempt to separate somewhat the connection of money from politics and in my view in what's happened in Maine, you've seen better public policy come about," said Foster.

Foster admitted he's a savvy fundraiser, as did most of the lawmakers interviewed. But he said it's a distraction from what elected officials should be doing during campaigns.

"As a candidate, what we'd like to do is spend time with the voters, with the citizens, finding out what their interests are rather than spending too much time raising money," Foster said.

Sen. Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, another sponsor and former minority leader, said it would open doors to newcomers looking to unseat incumbents with greater financial backing.

"It's a voluntary way of trying to curb the silliness that gets into these House and Senate races," Sprouse said. "It's crazy."

Delegate DeLong said the bill would probably hurt incumbents, but it's more important to lessen the influence of special interests on public policy-making.

"If we can get to that point, we've done a great service to government," he said.

DeLong was also among those less enthusiastic about the bill's passage this year. He said the financial aspects of the legislation would still be the major bone of contention.

He also said he has no plans to use his post in the House to get the bill on committee agendas and pushed through.

A fiscal note attached to this year's bills estimate the initial total cost of the program at around $3 million.

It is estimated to cost about $1.6 million in additional oversight and increased meetings for the State Election Commission.

Technological improvements with the Secretary of State's office alone are estimated to cost around $150,000.

During the 2010 election year, the state estimates candidates would use about $1.3 million in public funds for their campaigns. By 2014, those estimates jump to $7 million.

Last year, the state Treasurer's office offered $1 million in unclaimed property money to help jump-start the program. Supporters say that's public money just sitting around and shouldn't ruffle too many feathers among taxpayers.

Steenstra at Citizen Action Group believes the treasurer's offer is still on the table. He said other easy-to-swallow funding could come from surcharges levied on civil fines and "check-off" donations from state income tax returns.

"While it's public financing, we really want to avoid general revenue money," Steenstra said.

Financial reporting requirements for candidates who passed up public financing have also been eased in the new bill, Steenstra said. There were some who felt the requirements of the old bills were unfairly burdensome.

Kessler believes starting off small, perhaps with public financing for judicial elections, would be a way to ease the state into it.

The program could be passed on a "sunset" basis, Kessler said, meaning there would be a point when the program's performance would be reviewed and lawmakers would either allow it to end or renew it.

During the last two regular sessions, bills that created public financing programs attracted attention in one or both chambers but hit snags on the financial details.

"I think the money has always been the issue," Kessler said.

Kessler said the key for lawmakers is to reach a compromise that would inflict no financial burden on taxpayers.

Contact writer Justin D. Anderson at 348-4843.

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