Elections panel seeks extension of campaign funding effort
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The state should continue offering public money to state Supreme Court candidates who agree not to accept large private donations, the State Election Commission agreed Thursday.
Commission members, including Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, liked the outcome of a one-year experiment last year that was designed to reduce the appearance that court seats can be bought.
The program funneled state money to candidates who agreed not to accept large contributions from donors and special interest groups. For the one-year program to continue, the Legislature must update state law.
The commission is working on a proposal for the Legislature following its meeting Thursday.
Republican Allen Loughry was the only candidate to participate in the program last year. He is now a Supreme Court justice, even though he was outspent by two wealthy self-financed candidates who both had the backing of special interest groups.
Loughry spent about $430,000, and about $363,000 of that was public money.
He had to raise some private money in small increments to qualify for the program. Then he was allowed to raise some more private money after the state Supreme Court struck down a part of the pilot program that would have allowed him to collect up to $700,000 more in public "rescue" money if his opponents began to outspend him, and two of them did.
Election commission member Gary Collias said some people might think the program is dead because the state can no longer provide rescue money. But he said Loughry's victory shows the rescue money was not essential for victory.
"Even the part of the pilot program that is left intact is still worthwhile," Collias said during the meeting.
But because the rescue funds are no longer legal, the commission is looking to increase the amount of money it initially offers candidates who qualify for public financing.
One proposal, floated by Citizens Action Group, which supports public financing, is to offer candidates up to $825,000 a year.
Election officials think the public attention of the court case against the rescue fund helped raised Loughry's profile in ways that the relatively small amount of public money could not. The legal battle was fueled by two Democratic lawyers and targeted Republican Loughry's access to extra money - so arguably it backfired.
Tennant's attorney, Tim Leach, said Loughry got "a lot of press, which had the beneficial effect of name recognition for the candidate."
And campaigns continue to cost more and more.
"I know television stations. I'm sure their rate card won't be the same," Tennant, a former TV reporter, said. She was referring to the price stations charge for ads.
There is about $2.6 million left in the pilot program's account. If the Legislature does not extend the program, that money returns to the state general fund.
Collias worried the Legislature would balk at costs of making the public financing program permanent.
"I just wonder if the dollars are going to get big enough that the people in the Legislature are going to oppose it just because of the amount of money," he said.