This article originally provided by The Charleston Daily Mail

February 1, 2007

2007 may offer best chance for publicly funded campaigns in W.Va.

Associated Press Writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Legislation that would allow candidates to use public money to run for office has been coming up since 2002. But advocates say this year might be the last chance for West Virginia to join the three states that have enacted similar laws in a bid to end the "money arms race'' of electoral politics.

The proposal has been gaining momentum, according to Kanawha County Sen. Vic Sprouse, one of the Senate bill's Republican sponsors. If it doesn't happen this year, he said, he can't imagine it happening in 2008, an election year for most state lawmakers.

"If it's going to pass, this is the year it's going to pass,'' Sprouse said.

Since 2000, Arizona, Maine and Connecticut have passed similar laws allowing candidates to swear off private fundraising in exchange for public financing of campaigns. However, California voters last year rejected a similar measure in a statewide referendum.

Sprouse, comparing the escalating cost of campaigns to an arms race, said candidates without independent wealth or the ability to woo large donors are being priced out of politics.

"The cost of elections in West Virginia are totally out of control,'' he said.

In the 2006 elections, Senate candidates for 17 of 34 seats together spent more than $2.8 million. About $1 million of that came from candidates who lost in the May primary. Those who survived until the general spent an average of about $64,500.

The large field of House candidates for all 100 seats spent $3.8 million, though all but about $220,000 was spent by primary winners. The House candidates who reached the general election spent an average of about $20,300.

Two current bills, one each in the Senate and House of Delegates, would create a system by which candidates could voluntarily receive public money for campaigns if they meet certain criteria, such as receiving a set number of contributions from individuals within their districts.

The fund would dispense varying amounts of money to candidates based on the offices they seek, so that senators could start with between $20,000 and $35,000 of public money, while delegates could qualify for between $7,500 and $22,500, based on how many members of the House are in their district. There are 58 delegate districts throughout the state.

The legislation proposes filling the election fund with money returned by candidates who violate the provisions of the act, civil penalties levied by the state Election Commission, voluntary donations and other sources.

On Thursday, a broad coalition of advocacy groups ranging from religious organizations to labor unions urged lawmakers to approve the legislation.

Although the advocates acknowledged the legislation had failed to gain enough support to pass previously, they were optimistic that the climate has changed, citing Connecticut's 2005 adoption of public financing legislation as an example of a years-in-the-making campaign paying off.

"We can't afford not to do this,'' said Gary Zuckett of the West Virginia Citizens Action Group.

Secretary of State Betty Ireland, who oversees the state's elections, would be responsible for putting any such system into place. In the past, her office had expressed concerns about how such a system would actually work.

Ireland's office is working with lawmakers to address those concerns, said spokesman Ben Beakes.

"We just want to make sure it's a bill we can actually administer, and I think it's close,'' he said.



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