The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 24, 2010

Supreme Court public campaign finance bill signed

Manchin had proposed such a bill as a pilot project to gauge the success of publicly financed campaigns in West Virginia.

Strictly on a voluntary basis, candidates in a contested primary in 2010 may get $200,000, while those who run without opposition would collect $50,000.

In the general election, candidates who choose to use public financing would be given $350,000 if they have opponents, while those running unopposed would get $35,000.

Originally, the measure included a variety of funding mechanisms, including an increase in fees attorneys pay to file cases in circuit courts, but those were eliminated at the insistence of Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, who opposed any hint of an increase in taxes or fees of any kind in the past session.

Even with that funding source dried up, the bill’s chief advocate, Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, said the bill still contained $3 million to be transferred from the auditor’s purchasing card fund annually, the chief revenue stream for the campaign financing.

“Walt was adamantly opposed to raising any fees this year,” Kessler recalled. “That’s why he took out some of the filing fees that lawyers pay and things like that.

“But I have a commitment from the governor that if there is not sufficient funding he’ll put it in next year or the year before the election. It will at least be a pilot.”

House members had no problems with the Senate version, passing it 78-18 on the final night of the session. In this region, the opposition votes came from Delegates Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, and Mike Porter, R-Mercer.

The tally was much closer in the Senate — 26-7 — and one of the opponents was Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, who opined that anyone seeking a seat on the state’s highest court should raise campaign money personally, not lean on taxpayers to pay the freight.

Kessler pointed to a recent editorial in The New York Times applauding West Virginia’s efforts to wade into the waters of publicly financed political campaigns and citing the negative impression when a justice takes in huge sums from a business, giving the image that justice is on the auction block.

In a news conference leading up to the vote on the bill, Kessler said the existing campaign arrangement creates a “dialing for dollars” atmosphere that reeks of tainted justice.

Kessler also revealed a poll of 600 residents likely to vote this year showed overwhelming support, running across the entire political spectrum.

Now that Manchin has signed it, Kessler said the bill could have another positive effect — giving West Virginia’s battered judicial a better image.

In recent years, business groups have assailed the state as “a judicial hellhole,” but even with publicly financed campaigns, Kessler doubted the image would improve in the eyes of some critics.

“I don’t think, with those guys, we’ll ever make them happy, short of outlawing any lawsuit against somebody, unless it’s something when a business wants to sue something,” he said.

“Then they want the courts to keep their hands off. When the courts rule in their favor, it’s a good decision. When they rule against them, it’s an activist court.”

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