Big money from all over pours into WV legislative campaigns

Gazette-Mail file photo
West Virginia lawmakers meet in the House of Delegates chamber at the state Capitol in December 2014. Big money is flowing into the 2016 legislative campaigns from Democratic backers, as well as Republican supporters.

Most of the seats in the West Virginia Legislature are up for grabs, and unions, law firms, energy companies, the health care industry and anonymous Republican donors are all spending big to make sure their candidates win.

A weeks-long analysis by the Gazette-Mail shows that money is pouring into this year’s legislative races from every avenue available, including contributions from wealthy individuals, donations from various political action committees and unrestricted spending by super PACs.

Like past elections, Democrats are benefiting primarily from the support of trial lawyers and labor unions, and Republicans are getting money from coal operators, gas companies and health care corporations.

But with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision firmly in place, this year’s legislative races are also witness to a new wave of unlimited spending by third-party groups that have shelled out cash for mailers, radio spots and television ads across West Virginia.

State finance records show that the West Virginia Family Values PAC — a state group largely financed by unionized labor — has thrown more than $2.8 million toward legislative races this election cycle supporting Democrats. That spending has led to legal challenges by some Republican lawmakers who are being targeted by the group.

On the flip-side, the Republican State Leadership Committee — a national group that gets its money from pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, Wal-Mart, Koch Industries and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — has paid $234,740 for third-party advertising campaigns.

That Republican spending has been supplemented by money from Grow WV, a conservative super PAC that is able to collect most of its money anonymously.

The group, which is registered at the federal level, does not file any type of campaign finance reports with the state and, as a result, often isn’t recognized as a source of support for Republican campaigns in West Virginia.

But federal reports show the organization has spent nearly half a million on radio and television buys since the beginning of September.

Those same reports show that the group has received $50,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee and $10,000 each from U.S. Reps. Evan Jenkins and David McKinley’s federal PACs.

But the vast majority of the super PAC’s money is funneled to it from GO West Virginia, a separate dark-money group that holds exclusive Republican fundraisers and allows anonymous donors to bankroll political campaigns.

The group’s federal reports do not list which candidates are benefiting from Grow WV’s unlimited spending, and the documents don’t list the group’s true personal benefactors.

Labor unions also are spending the most money when it comes to direct contributions to legislative campaigns.

The Gazette-Mail digitized more than 8,742 direct contributions to all of the state’s legislative candidates during the first general election period and found that the state’s labor unions gave nearly $600,000 to Democratic legislative candidates between June and September of this year.

More than $83,000 of that came from the AFL-CIO and its local affiliates. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the group’s local chapters gave more than $76,000, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and its regional offices gave around $66,000 to Democrats.

West Virginia’s teachers and school personnel unions also have spent big on this year’s legislative races — mostly in support of Democratic candidates.

The West Virginia Education Association and associated groups have donated more than $30,000 to Democrats. The American Federation of Teachers has spent more than $66,000, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association has spent $71,000 on would-be Democratic lawmakers.

The teachers unions and school personnel organization, which is made up of bus drivers, cooks and custodians, are largely in support of the same types of policies. They want to increase pay for school employees, push the Legislature to better fund the Public Employees Insurance Agency and they want lawmakers to oppose the push for charter schools in the state.

Supplementing spending from labor unions and teachers, the Democrats also have received more than $81,000 from the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, which operates under the name LAW PAC, and another $6,000 from the trial lawyers’ national group — the American Association for Justice. Members of those organizations are attorneys who represent people and groups in personal injury, nursing home abuse, workplace safety, medical malpractice and various class-action lawsuits.

In the past two years, the Republican-led Legislature has passed laws, often referred to as tort reform, that restrict people’s ability to file some of those lawsuits or limits the damages people can receive.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Cole, the state Senate president from Mercer County, and his fellow Republicans have portrayed those bills as business-friendly, because most are focused on limiting lawsuits against various industry groups.

On the other side, Republican candidates are getting a large chunk of their direct campaign funding from energy companies, the health care industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The Republican candidates have gained at least $14,000 from Marathon Petroleum, $13,000 from Alpha Natural Resources, $11,000 from FirstEnergy, $7,450 from Arch Coal, $8,500 from EQT Corp. and $41,250 from American Electric Power’s employee-operated PAC.

Coal companies and electric utilities have a long history in West Virginia politics, and the state’s burgeoning natural gas industry is playing a larger role in lobbying and public policy making.

The coal companies have continually advocated for lower severance taxes in recent years and were successful at getting lawmakers to roll back mine safety rules in the past session.

The state’s two major electric utilities helped get the Legislature to approve surcharges for upgrades at coal-fired power plants last session, and likely will try to play a role in deciding how West Virginia complies with the Clean Power Plan, if the federal carbon rules are upheld in court.

West Virginia’s natural gas companies, which have sought to tap the Marcellus Shale formation, pushed last session for bills that would block class-action lawsuits against them. They also have tried to pass bills that would allow the corporations to force unwilling mineral owners to sign a lease.

When it comes to health care interests, the Republican donors are predominantly made up of two groups: the West Virginia Hospital Association, which represents 54 hospitals across the state, and the West Virginia Health Care Association, which is made up of 130 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in the Mountain State.

The hospital association put forward more than $18,000 for Republican campaigns between June and September. The state’s nursing home association, which operates as a local affiliate of the American Health Care Association, has assisted Republican candidates with $11,000 in campaign financing over that time.

Merck and Pfizer, two of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, also are spending thousands on legislative candidates.

The pharmaceutical manufacturers are donating to candidates in both political parties, but Merck has given far more — $22,000 of its total $26,000 — to Republican hopefuls. Pfizer political spending is split more evenly, with $6,000 being spent on Republicans and $3,500 given to Democrats.

Both pharmaceutical giants said the companies are supporting candidates who back expanding access to medication and continued pharmaceutical innovation.

“The PAC supports legislators from both major parties who understand and appreciate the work we do to discover and develop medicines and to make them available to the patients who need them,” Merck’s spokespeople said in a prepared statement.

Both companies have huge interests in West Virginia, particularly when it comes to the state’s Medicaid program.

In 2015, state data shows, Pfizer’s products cost West Virginia’s Medicaid program $22.5 million, which was reduced to $8.4 million after various rebates were factored in. Merck’s products over that same time cost the Medicaid system $26 million, a number that was reduced to $4.7 million once rebates were deducted.

The drug manufacturers’ interest in the state Legislature also comes at a time when high-profile cases, including the controversy over Mylan’s EpiPen, have brought rising pharmaceutical prices to the public’s attention.

In California, Merck, Pfizer and many other pharmaceutical companies are fighting a ballot measure — Proposition 61 — that would use federal limits to set price caps on prescriptions paid for through public insurance programs.

Both major parties in West Virginia also have political surrogates that are helping to pay for legislative races.

Democratic legislative candidates are getting help from two of the wealthiest politicians that are running for statewide office. Gubernatorial nominee Jim Justice is a billionaire and considered the state’s richest person. Attorney General candidate Doug Reynolds is a millionaire from Huntington. Together, they have given more than $40,000 to House and Senate candidates, while simultaneously self-funding their own runs for office.

Republicans, in turn, are benefiting from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s fundraising ability as the state party’s highest elected official. Her Wild and Wonderful PAC dispensed about $19,000 to legislative candidates during the first general reporting period.

State finance records show that each party’s most generous individual donors often come from the same groups that are seeking to influence the political races with PAC spending. For Republicans, it’s business executives. For Democrats, it’s trial lawyers.

Members of the Boyle family, which owns MCI Group, an energy contracting firm based in Kingwood, have given at least $8,700 to Republican legislative candidates. Their company is associated with the Associated Builders and Contractors, which supported the Republican-led “right-to-work” legislation.

Larry Pack, a managing member of the nursing home company Stonerise Healthcare, gave more than $5,000 to Republican candidates. He also is the secretary of the state nursing home association.

Timothy Bailey, a personal injury attorney in Charleston, has given at least $8,000 to Democratic candidates. Dino Colombo, a Morgantown attorney, gave $6,000 directly to the party’s candidates. And Robert and Clayton Fitzsimmons, two attorneys from Wheeling, collectively donated $7,000 to Democrats.

Reach Andrew Brown at andrew.brown@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.

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