By Senator Craig Blair, R-Berkeley
During the past four years, one of the Legislature’s top priorities has been to modernize West Virginia’s laws and to take outdated and burdensome regulations off our books. We have succeeded in making West Virginia friendlier to businesses and in adopting policies that are competitive with those of our neighboring states.
Unfortunately, West Virginia’s campaign finance laws have fallen out of step with the rest of the country. Amid increasing concerns over the influence of money on our elections, it is crucial for the public to have confidence that the men and women who seek public office are transparent when it comes to their donors and accountable for their political messaging.
Transparency and accountability are the two principles that make me proud to support Senate Bill 622, the bill recently passed by the Legislature to update our state’s campaign finance laws. In this bill, we not only reconcile West Virginia’s contribution limits with the Federal contribution limits, but we strengthen disclosure requirements for candidates and PACs and improve the Secretary of State’s ability to enforce our campaign finance laws and detect violations.
The misinformation machine is already in overdrive, trying to create the perception of a problem with this bill when there is not one. The bill’s critics want you to believe that raising the state’s contribution limits to match Federal contribution limits will create a pipeline of unreported shady dollars overflowing into every election, from the election of city council members to the election of the Governor. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Let’s examine some facts: Limits on contributions to candidates in West Virginia have not been increased since they were first imposed nearly 80 years ago. In 1941, the Legislature chose to match the Federal individual contribution limit of $5,000. Because of inflation, that original limit equates to approximately $89,000 in 2019. In 1974, when the Federal Election Campaign Act imposed a limit of $1,000 on individual contributions to Federal candidates, West Virginia followed suit four years later and again reconciled our contribution limits with the Federal individual contribution limit.
For 41 years, our state’s contribution limits have remained stagnant at $1,000, without any adjustment for inflation. Meanwhile, our surrounding states have modernized their campaign finance laws to allow citizens greater freedom to support candidates in the most transparent manner possible, through direct campaign contributions. Even with the individual contribution limit of $2,800 in Senate Bill 622, West Virginia’s contribution limits would still be far below those of our neighboring states and the 14th-lowest in the nation. In Ohio, the individual contribution limit is $13,292. In Pennsylvania and Virginia, there is no limit.
The critics of Senate Bill 622 claim to seek greater transparency, while opposing a bill that will redirect “dark money” into forms of political spending that are publicly available on the Secretary of State’s website. One of the reasons West Virginia has been such a ripe ground for big spending by super PACs and independent groups in recent decades is our outdated contribution limits. At $1,000 per person or PAC per candidate, it is easy to see why outside, third-party groups fill in the gaps in political advocacy through independent expenditures. Independent expenditures are not subject to the same limits or disclosure requirements as direct contributions, because of First Amendment protections. Additionally, independent expenditures cannot be coordinated with any candidate, which means the candidate has no control or input over a group’s message made in his or her support.
Raising contribution limits does not encourage an influx of “dark money,” but rather empowers our state’s candidates, parties, and individual donors, while lessening the influence of super PACs and outside groups. Ultimately, Senate Bill 622 will help curb the impact of out-of-control spending by those who may not have the best interests of West Virginians at heart.
— Senator Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, represents the 15th Senatorial District, which includes Morgan and Hampshire counties and parts of Berkeley and Mineral counties. He serves as the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and is the Vice Chairman of the Senate Education Committee.