Campaign finance bill is a step forward for WV elections

West Virginia’s campaign finance laws need work. They are outdated and include too many loopholes. Senate bill 622 makes several significant changes that will benefit candidates and the public.

The bill passed the Senate and House of Delegates along party lines. Governor Justice has the bill, but has taken no action on it yet.

Much of the attention has been on the increase in campaign contribution limits—I’ll get to that in a minute—but the bill also includes important changes in the law increasing transparency and accountability.

The bill requires all PACs to file their financial reports with the Secretary of State’s office electronically.  Currently, PACs can file by paper.  The Secretary of State’s Office scans the reports and puts them on their website. However, the paper filings are difficult to follow and not conducive to online searches. Voters and media will have much easier access to PAC spending information when all the data are filed electronically and easily searchable.

The bill closes a current loophole that allows independent expenditure groups to file financial reports with the Federal Election Commission, but not with the state, even when they spend money on West Virginia campaigns.

If SB 622 becomes law those federal PACs and other organizations, such as independent expenditure committees that engage in certain political activity within 15 days of an election, will be required to file electronically with the Secretary of State’s Office within 24 hours of running an ad.

With the current loophole, independent expenditure groups that spend money close to an upcoming election that file with the FEC don’t have to report until December at the earliest, meaning voters and the media have no access to the information about the group’s spending until after the election.

Critics say the bill opens the floodgates to even more “dark money.”  That is a red herring.  The government cannot restrict independent expenditures because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that campaign spending is speech protected by the First Amendment.  SB 622 at least gives the public better access to information about the groups that are spending the money.

The bill imposes a $10 per day fine for each day a candidate is late in filing their campaign finance information.  The Secretary of State’s Office often has trouble getting PACs, other political organizations and losing candidates, especially those who fail in the Primary, to file their reports.  The goal here is not to raise money, but rather to improve the filing rate by candidates.

Now on to the changes in contribution limits.

West Virginia’s campaign contribution limit for state candidates has stayed at $1,000 per election for four decades.  All the while, other states and the federal government have raised their limits to account for inflation and more expensive campaigns.

Under SB 622, West Virginia’s cap would be raised from $1,000 to $2,800 to a candidate, from $1,000 to $10,000 to a party and $1,000 to $5,000 to a PAC.   Those match the federal contribution limits and are still among the lowest in the country.   For example, Ohio’s limit is $13,292 per election, while Pennsylvania and Virginia have no limits.

The higher limits also help level the playing field for candidates who are not independently wealthy.  Rich candidates currently have a significant advantage over their less well-off opponents who must spend more time fundraising.

It’s common to decry money in politics, especially at election time when the media is overloaded with campaign ads, some of which are especially distasteful.  However, at least this bill improves public access to information about who is spending the money and updates campaign contribution limits to more realistic levels.




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