WV Senate Judiciary Committee eyes raising campaign funding limits

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail

The Senate Judiciary Committee looked over a bill Monday that would increase campaign donation limits in West Virginia elections and decrease some disclosure requirements.

The committee reviewed Senate Bill 539, a lengthy measure that revises election finance laws down to the smallest nuts and bolts.

Counsel for the committee, Jennifer Greenlief, said the main things the bill does include increasing campaign contribution limits, increasing use of campaign funds and increasing allowances of individual expenditures (campaign messaging that does not come from a candidate directly).

For contributions, the bill would allow private citizens to donate $2,700 to Legislature candidates per election cycle, up from the current $1,000 limit.

It also would increase the amount citizens can donate to political action committees to $5,000 per year, and the amount they can donate to statewide committees or caucus committees to $10,000 per year.

Those figures would increase every two years, in accordance with the Consumer Price Index.

The bill also raises the dollar amount that triggers donors’ disclosure of affiliations.

According to existing law, those donating $250 or more to a candidate need to list their employer and industry, along with their name, Greenlief said. The same holds true for those donating more than $1,000 to a PAC.

The proposed bill would raise those dollar triggers to $1,000 and $5,000 for statewide elections. During discussion on the bill, Sen. Ronald Miller, D-Greenbrier, said this could open the door to entities donating $1 less than the threshold, preventing disclosure.

Under the definition of the bill, a PAC would be any group of two or more people who raise more than $5,000 to spend on anything that could affect the sway of politics, elections or campaigns.

The committee heard testimony from several speakers. Speaking in favor of the bill, Deputy Secretary of State Steve Connolly said he and his department support the bill, saying it gives candidates more control over their campaigns and decreases their reliance on nondisclosed, outside money.

Also pushing the bill, Allen Dickerson, legal director of the Center for Competitive Politics, a Virginia group that advocates for the deregulation of campaign finance law, said the measure would bring the state up to federal guidelines.

During his testimony, he said he was invited by state Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, when asked.

Speaking against the bill, Julie Archer of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, said it would end up allowing money into the political system without disclosing its source.

“If you’re going to spend money on our elections, you ought to have the political courage to say who you are,” she said.

However, Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, defended the bill. He said it protects the privacy of donors who give to intermediary sources, like PACs.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, proposed an amendment to the bill that it not take effect until January 2019, to give electioneers time to adjust and avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.

The committee struck down the amendment, although Woelfel said Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, who was absent, will reintroduce it when he returns.

The meeting adjourned after nearly two and a half hours of discussion, amendments and testimony.

The committee will continue working through the matter at its next hearing.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at jake.zuckerman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5149 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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