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Julie Archer, Natalie Thompson: Senate bill makes secret election money problem even worse (Gazette)

By By Julie Archer and Natalie Thompson

The West Virginia Senate passed a major campaign finance overhaul bill (SB 539) that would allow even more big money in our elections, and create new loopholes to make it harder for West Virginians to know who is trying to influence our votes.

This secret money bill, SB539, weakens our disclosure laws while allowing more money into an already out of balance system that favors the wealthy and special interests. For example, the bill would require less disclosure for spending on independent expenditures by raising the spending thresholds that require groups to report and disclose their contributors, making it easier for front groups running dirty attack ads can keep their big-money donors secret. Even worse, the bill also creates new loopholes and worsens existing ones that make it possible for groups that spend money on political ads to hide the identity of their donors.

At the same time, the bill increases the amount of money that can be contributed to candidates by nearly three times, the amount of money that can be contributed to PACs by five times, and the amount the can be contributed to party committees by 10 times. That means state and local elections that suddenly look more like the worst big-money congressional elections. The bill also allows transfers of money between certain entities that aren’t allowed under current law, making the job of average West Virginians trying to figure out who their candidates are accountable to even harder.

This bill completely fails to address the flood of secret money in our elections. After spending $5.6 million during the previous presidential election year, outside groups reported spending nearly $20 million to influence West Virginia elections in 2016. Although the spending itself was disclosed, its origin most often was hidden behind the very loopholes and money transfers that SB 539 makes even worse. In fact, many groups spending money on our elections listed no other contributors on their financial disclosures other than the sponsoring organization, while others filled our mailboxes and airwaves without filing a single report with either the Secretary of State or the Federal Election Commission.

Although SB 539 increases disclosure in some small ways, like requiring PACs and entities making independent expenditures to file reports electronically, the overall effect of the bill would be disastrous for ordinary working West Virginians who can’t afford to compete with wealthy special interests. Unfortunately, both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate rejected opportunities to support an equal voice in our elections for everyday — amendments offered by Senators Mike Romano, D-Harrison, and Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, that would have required disclosure of “dark money” by closing the “covered transfers” loophole, which currently allows wealthy donors and special interests to funnel money through multiple PACs and organizations in order to obscure its origin.

We need more disclosure in our elections, NOT more money. If the West Virginia Legislature wants to discourage negative attack ads, give candidates the ability to respond, and inform voters about who’s trying to influence their votes, the best thing they can do is support transparency and require those who are spending money on our elections to disclose the source of the money. We deserve to know who’s trying to influence our votes and persuade our public officials, not be kept in the dark.

Secret money has no place in West Virginia elections. West Virginians stand up for what they believe in. The House of Delegates should reject the secret money bill, SB 539.

Julie Archer and Natalie Thompson are co-coordinators of WV Citizens for Clean Elections.

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