This Editorial originally provided by The Register-Herald

November 19, 2007

Churches want state campaign financing reform

Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

As the Rev. Dennis Sparks sees it, politicians in office enjoy a major edge when re-election time rolls around in getting out the big bucks to bankroll their campaigns.

Sparks is executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, one of several groups determined to even the playing field as much as they can.

The idea is to enact a bill that would let legislative candidates tap into public money to finance campaigns.

“We call it the ‘Freedom Bill,’” Sparks said Monday.

“We think our legislators, or people who run for office, are so tied down by the need to get money that that becomes such an emphasis that they can’t focus on the issues and really listen to their constituents, the voters.”

For the past five years or so, the council has taken an active role in advocating campaign financing reform, Sparks said.

“We won’t seriously deal with the issues in West Virginia — whether those issues be energy, or taxes or otherwise — until we can free our legislators and ultimately our governor from having to be responsible more to the donors than the voters,” he said.

Tentatively, the plan pushed by the Council of Churches, the AFL-CIO and West Virginia-Citizen Action Group calls for between $22,500 and $67,500 to be made available to House candidates attracting as many as 250 donations of $5 apiece. Senate hopefuls would get between $20,000 and $60,000 for raising a like number of donations. The lone exception would be Kanawha County, since it elects two senators in each election. There, the bar would be 400 donations of $5 each, qualifying aspirants for $45,000 to $60,000.

An opponent, Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, vigorously opposes the idea, saying it forces taxpayers to finance campaigns.

“People are supposed to go out and raise money to fund their campaigns,” she said.

“We have a transparent system, where any citizen can look online or go to the secretary of state’s office to see who contributes to whom. I think it’s a free speech issue.”

In the last election, Sobonya said her campaign was blitzed by a last-week mailing barrage orchestrated by the state Democratic Party, and the gambling industry, the latter passing itself off as “West Virginians for a Brighter Future, or whatever they were called, and they did it at the last minute,” she said.

“Before anyone could figure out where it came from, it was too late,” said Sobonya, who was re-elected despite the effort.

“I believe we should maybe look at reporting requirements and make them tell the truth and where they’re coming from, instead of finding out from someone else,” she said. “Make them say who it is right up front. Everything should be transparent.”

Sobonya said she dislikes the idea of forcing taxpayers to help underwrite campaigns of opponents when they possibly are not on the same ideological page.

“Right now, if somebody gives to a campaign, it’s because they believe in that campaign, or believe in what that candidate stands for and they align with that issue,” she said.

“I don’t want my tax dollars paying for, say, Al Gore to run for president. It’s ridiculous.”

Sparks sees the matter simply as one of fairness and acknowledges the reform bill faces some difficult days, since the entrenched incumbents are reluctant to change a system that tends to favor them.

“They’re afraid that they would lose that support if it went this way,” he said of the proposal. “So, it’s self-guarding.

“We say that if we continue the way we are, that our freedoms are dampened, because corporations are paying for government. So the choice is, democracy or corporate America controlling our candidates here in West Virginia and across America. Those who already in office have a huge unfair edge with the current system.”

While candidate participation would be voluntary, it means the folks doling out the big bucks to elect candidates would still be able to spend their money.

In the public’s eye, however, once the public financing system comes on line, it could create a public relations problem for those candidates who prefer the existing system, Sparks said.

“This is real democracy,” he said. “The wealthy individuals just can’t flaunt their money without paying some popular price, and we like that.”

So far, the idea has been successful in Arizona and Maine, the clergyman said.

“More people who don’t have a lot of money are elected to office,” Sparks said.

“That’s what we’re after. We’re effectively expanding our democratic process in West Virginia.”

Voter-Owned Elections

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