This Op-Ed originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

February 24, 2008

Julie Archer

We could have clean elections in W.Va. for just $6 apiece

This year, the Legislature has an opportunity to change the rules and shift control of our elections back to the voters.

The WV Public Campaign Financing Act (HB 4050 & SB 240) would create an alternative public financing option for candidates seeking election to the state Senate and House of Delegates. The legislation has Democratic and Republican sponsors in both houses and the support of Citizens for Clean Elections, a diverse non-partisan coalition comprised of faith-based organizations, good government advocates, environmental groups and organized labor.

The system is voluntary and candidates who participate agree to abide by contribution and spending limits. To qualify, candidates must collect a set number of $5 qualifying contributions from registered voters in their districts and agree to raise no private money for their campaign and to spend none of their own.

By removing the pressure from candidates to raise large sums of money from special interest contributors, public financing allows candidates to focus on issues and assure voters they are beholden only to them. It's a sensible approach to moving toward a government that is more honest, open and accountable to the needs of all its citizens.

At least eight states have already adopted full public financing programs for some or all state offices, and several others are considering similar legislation. In Maine and Arizona, which serve as the models for West Virginia's legislation, it is now the political norm to run for office free from direct dependence on private campaign contributions.

While changing the way we finance political campaigns may not be among the top public policy priorities for West Virginia voters, reducing the influence of special interests in the political process can help make other reforms like affordable health care and lower prescription drug prices possible. For example, Maine passed a progressive health care initiative that enables all but its wealthiest families to purchase prescription drugs on the Medicaid list for the Medicaid price, saving them as much as 60 percent off market prices.

Similarly, in Arizona, when Janet Napolitano campaigned in 2002, she promised to do something about prescription drugs. As a publicly financed candidate, her campaign stressed that meant she didn't have to take contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. She kept her promise. One of her first acts as governor was to require that the state buy its prescription drugs in bulk, lowering costs and saving everyone money.

Unfortunately, in West Virginia the real promise of the 2003 legislation requiring our state to negotiate directly with drug companies for lower prices was never realized because of the overwhelming influence of the pharmaceutical lobby.

Within the Legislature, support for the WV Public Campaign Financing Act seems to be on the rise, although many legislators remain somewhat skeptical that the public supports making "taxpayer dollars" available for campaigns. However, there is evidence that voters in West Virginia are favorably disposed toward the program. Nationally polls indicate the majority of voters, regardless of party affiliation, support proposals where candidates who agree to spending limits and who agree not to accept private contributions would qualify for a set amount of money from a public fund. These surveys show support for such programs growing over time. In addition, public financing costs just $6 per household - a very reasonable amount to pay for a system that can put West Virginia voters back in control of our elections.

If we want sound public policies, we need to eliminate the undue influence of special interests by adopting public campaign financing. Publicly financed candidates are responsible only to the voters, feel obligated to keep promises and can help the citizens get what we want and need from government. Pubic financing puts voters back in the driver's seat.

Archer is with WV Citizen Action Group.

Voter-Owned Elections

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