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WV Senate GOP stalls campaign finance bill after Dem amendments

Republican leadership in the West Virginia Senate stalled their own proposal to increase campaign contribution limits after Democrats successfully amended the bill to also require increased disclosure by “dark money” groups that spend money on elections without disclosing their funders.

The bill, as originally written, would have increased the maximum allowable contribution to candidates for state office from $1,000 per candidate, per election, to $2,700.

But Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee amended a compromise into the bill (SB 408). They would accept the increased contribution limits, which they weren’t crazy about, if Republicans agreed to requirements on “dark money” groups designed to prevent situations where organizations funnel money between each other in order to mask the original source of the money.

Two Republican senators, Sen. Bob Ashley, R-Roane, and Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, voted with every Democrat on the committee to add the disclosure requirements to the bill.

Gaunch and Ashley voted for increased disclosure despite the urging of Republican leadership to defeat the measure.

“There comes a time when you’ve just got to do what you think is right,” Gaunch said of his vote. “I think the constituents of the 8th District think there is way too much dark money in politics.”

Democrats also amended the bill so that it would take effect next year. As originally written, the bill would have taken effect on May 11, 2016, the day after this year’s primary elections.

But once those two changes were made, Republican leadership decided not to bring the amended bill up for a vote, essentially stalling it, for now, in committee.

Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said that he would have to discuss the bill and the several amendments with other senators before deciding when and if to proceed with the legislation.

Republicans had initially argued that the increases in contribution limits were necessary because candidates were being drowned out by outside spending and independent expenditures.

“Our overarching view of this is that the candidates have no control of the message at the low limits,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said. “I’d be OK with even higher limits because it puts the candidates in control of the message.”

At $1,000, West Virginia has some of the lowest contribution limits in the nation and they have not been changed since the 1970s. At $2,700, the limits would match the limits for federal candidates, and they would be indexed to rise when the federal limits rise, usually by $100 per election cycle.

Democrats were luke-warm to the idea of increased limits. They said if the committee was going to increase the maximum amounts of money that politicians can raise from a single donor, it should also limit the influence of “dark money.”

The amendment they passed, with Ashley and Gaunch’s support, mirrored, almost precisely, a bill that the Senate passed last year with broad bipartisan support. That bill stalled in the House of Delegates.

“I just ask you to follow your conscience,” Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said in support of the amendment to increase disclosure, “You’re either going to go along with shedding some light on who’s spending this money or you’re not.”

Carmichael urged senators to vote against the increased disclosure, arguing that there were potential constitutional issues. The committee’s legal counsel said that there could be constitutional issues, but acknowledged that there has been no prior court ruling on the changes that West Virginia would make.

“Everybody should want to disclose their speech, I would encourage that,” Carmichael said, arguing against more disclosure, “But just because we feel that way doesn’t mean everybody feels that way. There may be reasons, legitimate reasons, that the founding fathers understood to protect anonymous free speech.”

Woelfel noted that Carmichael, and nearly every Senate Republican, supported the same disclosure requirements last year.

In a tense exchange, he questioned Carmichael’s motivations and his change in position.

“It has nothing to do with the election we’re in right now?” Woelfel asked.

The bill, as originally written, would have gone into effect on May 11, 2016, the day after this year’s primary elections. That means that the lower contribution limits would have remained in effect for the primary, but the higher limits would have been in effect for the general election. The Democratic primary for governor is contested, with three high-profile candidates.

Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, faces no opposition in the primary in his campaign for governor.

Cole’s lead counsel, Richie Heath, was active throughout the committee hearing, repeatedly conferring with Carmichael. Heath is also a former director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which makes hundreds of thousands of dollars in “dark money” political expenditures.

The effective date of the bill was changed after Democrats raised concerns about changing election rules in the midst of an election.

Dave Nichols, a representative of the Secretary of State’s Office, told the committee that, barring extenuating circumstances, he could not remember the Legislature making major election changes in the midst of an election year.

“I think it’s unbelievable to think we might do it right in the middle of an election year,” Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha said. “It’s beyond my comprehension.”

Following an amendment from Palumbo, the bill’s effective date was changed to Jan. 1, 2017.

But once those amendments were attached to the bill, it was tabled.

“We weren’t allowed the opportunity to vote on it,” said Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “Obviously, the bill didn’t move forward, we’re not really sure what the leadership’s decision is going to be tomorrow, but certainly we’d like to see the independent expenditure measures move forward.”

The independent expenditure measures would have required groups to disclose their donors when transferring money for political spending.

Perhaps the most well known West Virginia example of the activity that would be regulated is that of Grow WV and Go West Virginia, two conservative political organizations run by the same man, Mark Scott, an Elkins realtor.

Grow WV is a super PAC; it must disclose its donors.

Go West Virginia is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit; it does not need to disclose its donors.

But Go West Virginia can collect huge sums, anonymously, and then donate that money to Grow WV, which can spend it on political ads, disclosing its funder as only Go West Virginia, masking the true source of the money.

The Democratic amendment would have required disclosure of donors in the case of such transfers between entities.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.

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