WV Senate passes campaign finance overhaul

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail Trees are blossoming at the West Virginia Capitol complex in Charleston on Monday.

The West Virginia Senate passed a bill Monday designed to overhaul campaign finance laws in the state.

Key provisions of the legislation, Senate Bill 539, increase the maximum amounts that citizens can donate to individual campaigns, political action committees (PACs), caucus committees, state parties and ballot issue committees.

It also raises the amount of money citizens can donate anonymously for certain campaign communications, often referred to as “dark money.”

The bill passed with a 21-12 vote before it was sent to the House of Delegates.

Should the bill pass, citizens could donate up to $2,700 dollars per election cycle to a candidate running for statewide office, up from $1,000. Citizens also could donate up to $5,000 per year to PACs, and $10,000 per year to state parties or caucus campaign committees.

Additionally, it ties all the political contribution limits to the Consumer Price Index, to be adjusted every two years.

While most of the Senators agreed on the increased donation limits, a schism formed on the floor regarding “dark money,” anonymous donations to certain political groups.

The bill allows citizens to donate up to $1,000 to certain PACs (those who do not donate to individual candidates or their committees) without disclosing their identity, up from today’s $250 threshold.

PACs that make contributions to specific candidates or their political committees must disclose the names of all their donors.

The new bill does not deviate from current law regarding citizen campaign contributions, in that the identity of every donor is disclosed, and anyone who donates more than $250 must also give their place of employment.

Outside of PACs, the bill also gets into donations to member organizations such as the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club. When these groups form their own PACs to make “independent expenditures,” or campaign communications not commissioned by candidates or their committees, they must disclose the names of their donors above $1,000 only if those donations were specifically designated for the independent expenditure.

If donors do not earmark their donations for the political activity, they need not be disclosed, under section 3-8-2E of the bill.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, introduced a series of amendments — all of which were rejected — that would tighten the reins on when PACs and membership organizations need to disclose the identities of their donors, and how much those donors can donate before they’re disclosed.

He said the semi-anonymous speech the bill could open the door to have candidates dragged through the mud with no one to be held accountable.

“You’re as appalled and as embarrassed by independent expenditures as we are,” he said to chamber Republicans while introducing the amendment over the weekend. “If you send [SB] 539 as is, it does nothing to solve that problem.”

On the other side, Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, defended the bill. He said the founding fathers of the U.S. understood the need for anonymous speech at times, and protecting the identity of political donors is a necessary move to allow them to speak freely.

“The ability to exercise your right to free speech sometimes is necessary to be anonymous in that exercise,” he said Monday. “If you do not have the ability to be anonymous, you are subjecting yourself to the potential punishment of the powers that be when you exercise your free speech in the way that’s anonymous. We have to recognize that this is a real threat.”

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

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