This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

March 15, 2011

Public finance campaign supporters worried about pilot program

By Alison Knezevich

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Supporters of publicly financed judicial races are worried West Virginia won't have enough money for a pilot program meant to reduce the influence of special interests in state Supreme Court elections.

On Saturday -- the last day of the legislative session -- members of the Senate Finance Committee killed a measure (HB2732) that would have nearly doubled the amount of money in a fund for the 2012 Supreme Court race.

Proponents say publicly financed elections would reduce the influence of corporate interests and restore voter confidence in the judicial system.

But if candidates think the public funds won't be enough to get their message out, they will be afraid to participate, said Julie Archer of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, which is a member of the coalition Citizens for Clean Elections. The pilot program is voluntary.

"The concern is that if candidates perceive that the program is under funded, they're not going to use it," Archer said.

The role of money in West Virginia judicial races has made national headlines.

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Justice Brent Benjamin should have recused himself from a case involving Massey Energy, whose former CEO Don Blankenship had donated more than $3 million of his own money to help Benjamin unseat incumbent Justice Warren McGraw in 2004.

Blankenship's friendship with former Justice Spike Maynard -- with whom he vacationed on the French Riviera -- also sparked controversy.

Backers of public financing also point to influence of the last year's "Citizens United" U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which let corporations and unions spend unlimited amounts of money to back or oppose federal candidates.

Last year, West Virginia passed a law to set up the public-financing pilot program. The state plans to put $3 million into an account by July 2012. That money will come from rebates earned from the state auditor's Purchasing Card program.

This year's bill would have used an additional $2 million from the state treasurer's unclaimed property trust fund.

The state would have raised another $800,000 by charging fees on lawyers and parties in civil actions. The lawyers' fees would have ranged from $50 to $75, while the court fees were set between $10 and $20.

Delegate Tim Manchin has advocated for public financing for several years and said the Senate Finance Committee's vote could cripple the pilot program.  

"After three years of work, I'm extremely disappointed," said Manchin, a Marion County Democrat. "I support public campaign financing for many more elections than just this, but I think this was the perfect opportunity ... Now, I feel that the potential to see [the program] utilized has been crushed, quite frankly."

Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said that he personally supports the program, but that there weren't enough votes on his committee to advance the funding bill.

Lawyers' fees play a central role in North Carolina's public finance program, which is considered a national model, said Charles Hall, spokesman for the national, nonpartisan organization Justice at Stake.

These surcharges were challenged in North Carolina court, but ruled constitutional, said Damon Circosta, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education. Individual attorneys can opt to have their surcharge fund a judicial voters' guide, rather than the campaigns, he said.

Four states have public financing for appellate courts. Nationally, there has been growing "partisan pushback" from the GOP against these programs, said Hall, whose group works for impartial courts. 

In Wisconsin, newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget cut money for public campaign financing.

"Public financing is very, very popular with voters," Hall said. "Where it's been used, it's very popular with candidates. It's really met everybody's needs, and so it is unfortunate that it's under attack."

In West Virginia, House Republicans opposed this year's funding measure for the pilot program. House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said they don't think it's right for the public "to pay for people's robo-calls and commercials."

"I don't think the people want that," Armstead said.

The legislation was designed to give each candidate at least $200,000 in a primary election, and $350,000 in a general. Additional "rescue funds" would help candidates attacked by outside groups or outspent by opponents not participating the pilot program.

In 2008, five candidates vying for two seats on the Supreme Court spent about $3.1 million, Archer of Citizen Action Group said.

Reach Alison Knezevich at or 304-348-1240.


Voter-Owned Elections

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