This Editorial originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

November 2, 2007

Clean politics

Public financing

FOR five years, a group of concerned West Virginians have been trying to convince the Legislature to create public financing for legislative seats.

West Virginians would have more interest in running for office and more confidence in the process if races for state Senate and House of Delegates were more open to people of modest means, argue a coalition of groups, including West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections, Citizen Action Group, the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, the West Virginia Council of Churches and the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.

The version proposed would work like this:

In House races, a candidate must raise at least 250 contributions of $5 from supporters in his or her own district. That would qualify the candidate for $22,500 to $67,500 in public campaign funds, depending on whether candidates are unopposed and other factors. In return, each candidate must pledge not to accept other outside contributions, and not to spend personal money on the campaign. Candidates whose opponents don’t take the pledge and who are big spenders may apply for more taxpayer money.

At first glance, it may sound like welfare for politicians, but it’s not so, says Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha. His view is backed by Adam Smith, a Parkersburg native now with Public Campaign in Washington. “Citizens are already paying for the way elections are financed,” Smith says.

The current system rewards legislative candidates funded by big private donors — and winners pass tax breaks and other laws benefiting those donors. It erodes the public’s confidence in their representatives, Smith said during a meeting with Gazette staff members.

Seven states and two cities have passed some form of publicly financed campaigning. Maine was first, and now 84 percent of their legislators are elected this way.

In the past, we have voiced concern that a large fundamentalist church could recruit a dozen members to be candidates against abortion, gays and the like — then ask 250 members to cough up $5 donations, enabling the group to run on taxpayer money. The same might be done by a labor union, KKK chapter or other organized movement.

“We haven’t seen that as a problem in other states,” Smith said. On the contrary, he said, Arizona, for example, saw donations come from a more diverse group of supporters. All the participating states have more candidates running for office and fewer unopposed races. By requiring donations to come from within a candidates’ district, it would also discourage widespread groups from dominating a ballot at taxpayer expense.

West Virginia’s bill (SB118 during the last session) made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but did not emerge from the Finance Committee.

The state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, plus the League of Women Voters and the AFL-CIO are among 25 organizations supporting publicly financed legislative campaigns in West Virginia. Together, they represent about 900,000 state residents.

This common-sense approach clearly has broad public support. It deserves serious study by the Legislature.


Voter-Owned Elections

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