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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

West Virginia's Legislature Fights for a Fairer System
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As Scott Finn reports in The Charleston Gazette, West Virginia legislators are working on a campaign finance reform bill designed in part to check the influence of unregulated outside groups on the state's elections.

In the last election, one lone West Virginia energy tycoon gave $2.4 million to a group to help defeat state Supreme Court justice Warren McGraw. In the same race, plaintiff lawyers contributed nearly $1.9 million to support McGraw. The proposed bill checks these special interests run amok by limiting the amount to $2,000 which a person could give to a group trying to influence election in the weeks running up to that election.

The bill also would require any independent group spending more than $10,000 to influence elections to report income and expenditures on a regular basis to the secretary of state's office, and sets up a pilot program for public financing for five legislative races.

As reported, the proposal looks like a good first step towards leveling the playing field for the 99.999% of West Virginians who can't afford to give $2.4 million to unseat a judge they don't like. It is not much better, however, when a small group of not-quite-as-wealthy people (but still wealthy) can all give a few thousand dollars a piece to achieve the same result.

In order for the reforms to restore equality of political opportunities to all West Virginians, contribution limits should be set a level which is affordable for all West Virginians, not just the trial lawyers and executive washroom types. Low contribution limits, in conjunction with the state's fledgling public financing program for elections, are a promising beginning for those in the Mountaineer State whose voices have been drowned out by the torrent of big money.

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