This Op-Ed originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

February 21, 2008

Carol Warren

It's always the public who pays

FIRST there was Monaco. Then John Grisham's new work of "fiction." West Virginia has received two black eyes in the national media in less than a month. The negative national attention has pushed forward the need to clean up our judicial elections and the recent discussion of judicial elections on the floor of the state Senate correctly identified the problem. It is not so much partisanship or politics - it's money.

The large amounts of money flowing in state elections at all levels and the temptations inherent in them must be addressed.

Fortunately, there's an immediate way to clean up the state's reputation - the West Virginia Public Campaign Financing Act. The bill is already in the legislative pipeline. All it would take is political will and a desire on the part of legislators to provide a vehicle that, over time, would remove a large amount of special interest money from our state's campaigns.

The completely voluntary program would allow participating legislative candidates to qualify to receive a modest amount of public funding for their campaigns. Some legislators maintain that the public doesn't want to pay for political campaigns.

The question is not whether the public will pay for campaigns, but how they pay.

In fact, if the public does not pay, then the current practice will continue with corporations, PACs and wealthy individuals supplying the money for election campaigns. It is ludicrous to argue that the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to gain a $15,000 seat have no influence on public policy. Citizens pay every day for the way our officials finance their campaigns.

And as with most political topics, the answer depends on the question. If the question is, "Would you give $5 or $6 of your tax money each year for a system that curbs the power of special interest money and makes your representatives accountable only to you?" the citizen response is likely to be positive. Five or six dollars per household is roughly what the program costs in the states that have public financing.

While our coalition of 26 statewide organizations would certainly support a public financing program for judicial candidates, the fact remains that our Legislature is far more responsible for the policies that affect citizens every day. And a number of legislators will confess that they do feel pressured by political contributors, and really dislike that feeling.

That is why we often call our bill the "freedom bill." We need to free our legislators from unnecessary pressures to raise money from lobbyist organizations who have the capability to give out large contributions and then expect something in return.

We are pleased that our legislators seem upset and passionate about removing the money from judicial campaigns.

To utilize a biblical phrase, it's a bit like trying to take the mote out of someone else's eye before removing the plank in one's own.

We call upon the Legislature to seize the opportunity to enact a program that will help eliminate special interest money from legislative campaigns. It would be a huge step toward more participative democracy and improved accountability.

Warren is with West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections.

Voter-Owned Elections

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