The West Virginia Senate has cleared a bill that would make changes to the state’s campaign finance laws. While the measure increases the limits on donations to candidates and other political groups, opponents say the bill fails to provide transparency on so-called dark money in elections.
Senate Bill 622 seeks to increase the limits an individual would be allowed to give to a candidate, state party executive committee and a political action committee each election cycle or year. It also offers changes to reporting requirements for funds spent in support or opposition of candidates without their knowledge.
Individual contributions to a candidate committee would be capped at $2,800 per election cycle. Limits on donations to state party executive committees would be set at $10,000 per donor each calendar year. Contributions to a political action committee would be limited to $5,000 per person per year.
All of those limits -- for contributions to a candidate committee, a state party executive committee and a political action committee -- currently stand at $1,000.
Senate Bill 622 would also require independent expenditure reporting to be more immediate and frequent. Independent expenditures expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a particular candidate or set of candidates -- but not in cooperation with or at the request of those candidates.
Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, argued against the bill saying it doesn’t go far enough. He cited a November article from West Virginia Public Broadcasting that analyzed independent expenditures in the 2018 midterm elections.
“Dark money is going to continue to infiltrate the system -- both sides -- when what we need is some sunlight,” Baldwin said. “Now, I do think there is a hint of sunlight that comes through this bill and I appreciate that. I just don't think we go far enough.”
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, also argued against the bill and stated that a lack of transparency on independent expenditures hurts the public.
“This money, misleads the public, creates mistrust in our government, gives elected officials a black eye that's unnecessary and causes good people not to run. Setting sunlight on the on the contributors behind these types of conduct would certainly inform the public and perhaps cause people to think better before they level baseless attacks against candidates,” Romano said. “I also don't appreciate the increase in in limits. I know that seems to be a goal. But for both individuals and political parties, I think we make a big mistake by injecting more money into the process.”
While the proposed changes to contribution limits to candidates, state party execuitve committees and other groups would make the state consistent with federal law, West Virginia’s current campaign finance statute has no limit on the amount of money a person is allowed to be give to an independent expenditure.
Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC declared no such limitation shall be made under the First Amendment right to free speech.
He spoke in favor of Senate Bill 622.
“Candidates who run for office in West Virginia have surrendered or lost a portion of their ability to control the speech that arises in those campaigns and these unlimited groups fill the vacuum, fill the void,” Trump said about groups that make independent expenditures. “So this bill will bring our definitions into compliance with law. It will clarify things. It will provide additional transparency with more reports -- regular reports, every quarter, every couple weeks before every single election. It is a reasonable and balanced measure.”
The bill also would add language that would ban political donations from a foreign national. That provision, originally offered as a separate proposal (Senate Bill 276) by Baldwin, was added into Senate Bill 622 in the Judiciary Committee.
Advocates for campaign finance reform say the bill has some good components but falls short in many ways. Julie Archer of West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections said there was a key missed opportunity to provide more transparency.
“One of the problems in our elections now is there's sort of a shell game that goes on -- where the money that gets spent on elections is funneled through a series of groups or organizations so that the original source of the money is obscured,” Archer said. “There was a great amendment offered in committee that would it would have addressed just that situation and and shine a light on on the secret money that's being spent in our elections.”
That amendment, offered Friday in the Senate Judiciary Committee by Romano, would have forced the disclosure of donors who give more than $10,000 to an independent expenditure group. It was rejected on a party line vote.
“Basically, it's disastrous for working West Virginians who are already struggling to have their voices heard over the wealthy in the special interests that are trying to buy our elections,” Archer said.
Senate Bill 622 passed the upper chamber on a 19-15 vote. Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, broke with the majority party to join Democrats in voting against the measure.
The measure now heads to the House of Delegates for consideration.