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WV Senate introduces bill to eliminate public funding for Supreme Court races


The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Seven years after passing a law allowing public financing for West Virginia Supreme Court races, and months after watching how the law worked in practice, members of the West Virginia Senate have introduced a bipartisan bill that would eliminate the public financing option.

“It isn’t working,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, one of the co-sponsors of the bill. “It’s a sham.”

The Legislature initially passed a law allowing public financing for Supreme Court campaigns in 2010. That law set up a pilot program for the 2012 election. In 2013, lawmakers extended the law to take in the 2016 election cycle. When current Chief Justice Allen Loughry ran in 2012, he was one of four candidates running for two seats, and he was the first person to utilize the public campaign financing program. He faced a court battle over the amount of funding he was eligible to receive, which was $350,000.

The law was intended to curb the amount of money spent on judicial elections by giving candidates the option of using public funds for their campaigns. Under the public financing option, candidates could receive up to $525,000 in public money for their campaigns, as opposed to the millions spent in previous Supreme Court races through candidate fundraising.

In 2016, with Supreme Court justices elected for the first time in West Virginia on a nonpartisan basis, it looked like a good time to see how the law worked.

In the 2016 Supreme Court race, Bill Wooton and incumbent Justice Brent Benjamin chose to finance their campaigns with public money. But Beth Walker, who ultimately outspent her opponents, raised her money through traditional means.

Walker went to Kanawha Circuit Court to challenge Benajamin and Wooton’s public financing on technical grounds, also arguing public money gave them an unfair advantage in the race. The case went to the Supreme Court, where a temporary panel of judges upheld the candidates’ qualifications for public financing.

Prezioso said the public financing law didn’t keep judicial candidates from spending millions of dollars anyway. A bill eliminating public financing for Supreme Court elections was introduced on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Along with Prezioso, the bill was sponsored by Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha; Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha; Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne; Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha; Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan; Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell; and Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone. The bill was referred to the Senate judiciary committee and will move on to the Finance Committee.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he intended to pursue the legislation.

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