This article originally provided by The Herald-Dispatch

June 21, 2008

Tom Miller: Time may be coming for public financing of campaigns in W.Va.

With the exorbitant spending of West Virginia's 2008 primary election now well behind us, this might be an appropriate time to once again consider the provisions of a plan for public financing of campaigns in this state, which is, admittedly, a difficult sell not only to the members of the Legislature but most candidates as well.

Certainly, Gov. Joe Manchin, who had raised more than $2.2 million for this year's re-election bid more than a month before last month's primary election, probably would not be in favor of limited public campaign financing.

And the remaining candidates who collectively raised $1.8 million for the four-way race for two Democratic nominations on the Supreme Court of Appeals in the primary election are not likely to embrace the idea either, since the two Democrats and one Republican who will fight it out for the two spots in November probably will spend at least a million.

But once again this past winter, the Legislature had a look at HB4050 and its companion measure, SB240, that would have created maximum campaign spending limits with public funds. As a modest beginning, it was to be limited to the races for the House of Delegates and state Senate, but you have to start somewhere.

The biggest advantage is that it would truly permit anyone and everyone with an interest in serving in the Legislature to get in the campaign. The maximum spending permitted in the various legislative races would range from $7,500 to $35,000, depending on the population of the particular legislative district.

The bottom limit of $7,500 would apply to the several single-member districts in the House of Delegates and the $35,000 would be allowed only in the four state Senate seats in Kanawha County.

Each candidate would be allowed to raise a maximum of private campaign contributions of $5,000 for a Senate race and only $2,000 if he or she was to be a candidate for the House of Delegates. Then each candidate would be required to get a modest number of signatures to qualify for the public campaign money dispensed by the Secretary of State.

Only a couple of states have adopted any kind of serious public campaign financing laws. And admittedly, it's nowhere near a reality right now in West Virginia, since the legislation that has been introduced for several years never makes it out of the committee.

But there were 11 of the 100 members of the House of Delegates signed on as co-sponsors in 2008, and 14 members of the state Senate, including Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and Education Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne.

So maybe public opinion is swinging toward elections where the candidates win because of their ideas and positions rather than because of the amounts of money they can spend on TV advertising, billboards and mass mailings, and perhaps there will be a day in our lifetime where some limited public financing will become law.

Meanwhile, the Legislature continues to wrestle with the problems of attracting recruits to the 427 volunteer firefighter units in West Virginia that cover nearly 90 percent of the state.

There have been as many as 11,000 volunteers in past years, but the number has now dropped to about 10,000, and it's becoming more difficult to attract young people to the ranks of this valuable community service. Former legislator Sam Love, who now lobbies for the volunteers, said the days of the volunteers hanging out at the local fire hall are over.

These volunteers helped defeat a bill at the 2008 session to an increase in the state tax on insurance premiums to help solve major financial problems in the pension plans of most municipal paid fire departments, so they have some political clout.

Lewis has suggested the Legislature consider money for college scholarships that could be given to volunteer firefighters based on their years of service. And Sen. Ed Bowman, D-Hancock, wants to see if the many volunteer fire departments can't work together to eliminate costly purchases of duplicate equipment. The study committee hopes to have some recommended solutions ready next January.

Finally, state government in West Virginia spends nearly a half billion dollars a year on prescription drugs alone, so Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, hopes there is some way to negotiate some volume discounts for the Public Employee Insurance Agency and the other half dozen agencies making these purchases.

One encouraging sign is that two of every three state-purchased prescriptions are now in the lower-cost generic category, which averages less than $20 compared to the non-generic equivalent, which now average near $157 each, a boost of $21 in the last year alone.

Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page.

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