March 12, 2015

Sunshine or dark money?

This op-ed of mine ran in today's Gazette. The $100K breakfast thingie was a gift from the gods.

I was a little disappointed when a $100,000 per plate conservative breakfast fundraiser in Charleston was canceled.

To tell the truth, I was kind of hoping a waiter would take a picture. I’ve always wanted to see what a meal that costs as much as a West Virginia house would look like.

That’s also as much as the annual household income for two typical West Virginia families and more than enough to pay tuition and fees for 14 full-time students at WVU for a year. It would also be enough to pay rent at the state median monthly rate of $620 for 161 months or almost 13 and a half years.

Even after our state raised the minimum wage in January, a worker earning it would have to work 12,500 hours to get in.

One would hope they’d at least serve some decent taters …

Apparently organizers got a little nervous when the story hit the media.

That incident shows what a little sunshine can do to the dark money flooding state politics and threatening democracy.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee chose the path of sunshine when it came up with bipartisan compromises on SB 541. On the one hand, it raised the amount that can be given to a candidate for office to $2,700 per election (That would be 1/37 of the cost of a big ticket breakfast, but I digress). On the other, it provided sunshine by requiring disclosure of contributions, including those by third-party groups.

As Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael eloquently put it, “We want full disclosure, full transparency and full accountability. We want to put control of the message back in the hands of the candidate.”

The bill passed the Senate by a margin of 28-6.

Unfortunately, the lights went out in the House Judiciary Committee, where the disclosure provisions were eliminated.

Not surprisingly, the senators who worked out the compromise legislation were not amused. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler was quoted in the Gazette as saying that “The only thing worthwhile in the whole bill was giving the people more information to make informed election decisions and to bring shady, out-of-state donors out of the weeds.”

The bill has to go to the House floor, where it may be amended. It is also likely to go to a conference committee for more negotiations if it passes the House in its weakened form.

The good news is that some leaders from both parties agree that disclosure and transparency is critical for the future of democracy in West Virginia. If you care about that, this might be the time to say so.

Otherwise, we might as well sign away our future to the Breakfast Club.

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