CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pleased that a public financing experiment for Supreme Court candidates is now a permanent program, West Virginia's State Election Commission also noted Thursday that it will only have an estimated $1.5 million to offer when a court seat is next on the ballot in 2016.
The commission voted to approve proposed revisions to the program's rules, following passage of legislation expanding what had been a one-election pilot. But commission members were also mindful that the recently concluded session did not include additional funding or revenue sources for the program.
Lawmakers instead took $1.5 million from the program's balance, after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin requested it for other budgetary needs. That leaves $1.1 million, while the state treasurer is scheduled to provide an additional $400,000 by July 2015, Timothy Leach, a lawyer for Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, said during Thursday's meeting.
The commission, which includes Tennant as West Virginia's elections chief, will shortly file the proposed revisions. That will give the public 30 days to file comments. The commission will then review any feedback in late July.
Spurred by concerns over the perceived influence of campaign cash on the judiciary, the program offers public financing as an alternative to traditional fundraising. Justice Allen Loughry won in 2012's two-seat race after becoming the sole candidate among eight to apply and qualify for the funding. But the Republican was forced to leave the program after a September legal ruling denied him so-called matching funds.
The program sought to offer added money to help participating candidates keep pace with opponents. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision concluded that such funding threatened the free speech of those who desired to contribute to opponents.
This session's legislation adjusted the program accordingly, while making it permanent, but also revised the amounts available to candidates. Those facing a contested primary will receive $300,000 while a contested general election will trigger $525,000. The pilot had initially offered $200,000 for a primary $350,000 for a general election if there were competing candidates, with the now-voided matching funds provision increasing the available amounts to $600,000 and $700,000, respectively.