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Make election financing pilot permanent, panel recommends

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Election Commission members voted unanimously Thursday to recommend that a public campaign financing pilot project for state Supreme Court elections be made permanent.

"You could say it exceeded beyond most people's expectations, since the candidate that received [public financing] money was elected," commissioner Gary Collias said.

In 2012, then-Supreme Court clerk Allen Loughry was the only candidate to participate in the pilot project, receiving about $363,000 in public campaign financing for his successful bid for election to the high court.

The pilot project generated considerable publicity, particularly after the Supreme Court struck down a provision in the law to give Loughry additional matching funds based on opponents' campaign spending as unconstitutional.

"This was kind of a shake-down cruise, because this was an initiative that wasn't tried before," commission chairman Robert Rupp said of the pilot project.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said she wholeheartedly supports making the pilot project a permanent campaign funding option for Supreme Court candidates, saying it provides the opportunity for "new voices" to seek public office.

Commissioners will finalize a report to the Legislature Feb. 12 -- a day before the start of the 2013 regular session -- recommending that public campaign financing for Supreme Court candidates be continued as a permanent program, and recommending that the funding available to participating candidates be increased.

With the Supreme Court ruling, candidates participating in public campaign financing will be eligible to receive only a single, lump-sum payment at the start of the primary and general elections.

Julie Archer, with the state Citizen Action Group and with Citizens for Clean Elections, said the organization would submit legislation calling for lump sum payments of $300,000 in contested primary elections and $525,000 in general elections.

She said Loughry got additional benefit from news coverage over his fight for matching funds, in addition to the public campaign funds.

"I think he did benefit greatly from all the media coverage surrounding the litigation on the pilot project," she said.

Currently, the public campaign financing account has a balance of $2.6 million, which would provide financing for no more than four or five candidates if the Legislature does not appropriate additional funds.

The next scheduled election for state Supreme Court will be in 2016, with only one seat up for election.

If the Legislature takes no action to extend public campaign financing this session, the pilot project legislation will sunset on June 30, and the $2.6 million will go into the state general revenue fund.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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