Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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West Virginia State News

February 13, 2012

Capital Focus: Bill targets in-session fundraising by W.Va. legislators

CHARLESTON (AP) — West Virginia would not be the first state to ban its legislators from raising funds while in session, as a pending measure proposes, but critics say the bill’s current wording presents several unintended or unfair consequences.

State Sen. Mike Green said fundraising during last year’s special primary election for governor helped prompt him to introduce the legislation. While his bill would not apply to that office, the six Democrats and eight Republicans who ran in 2011 included five lawmakers.

These legislators attracted 35 percent of the $909,000 raised by all candidates during that year’s regular session. The lawmakers who ran also held nine of the 22 fundraising events that coincided with the session — though only three of the 22 fundraisers were held in the state capital, Charleston.

Halfway through his second term, Green believes that last year’s fundraisers threaten a tradition that has frowned on such events during the Legislature’s annual session. He noted that several have already been held this session.

“I don’t remember there being so many scheduled,” the Raleigh County Democrat said. “If we don’t address it now, I think it’s going to become a common practice over the years to come.”

Introduced Jan. 27, Green’s bill says that any member of the Senate or House of Delegates “may not participate in any fund raising effort during the sixty days of the regular session.” It awaits a review by the Senate Judiciary Committee and must then go to Senate Finance. With the session ending March 10, it must clear both committees by Feb. 26 under the Legislature’s procedural deadlines.

“The purpose of this is to instill confidence in the process, and also to give some lenience and some consideration to our friends in the lobbying community,” Green told colleagues during a floor speech last week. “I think that fundraising during the session creates an environment where special interest groups and lobbyists may feel some undue pressure to participate.”

At least 31 states set some sort of limit on lawmakers raising funds during sessions, according to a review by The Associated Press aided by research from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For nine of those states, including neighboring Kentucky, the policy is confined to contributions from lobbyists. Three of these states ban lobbyist contributions year-round. Four additional states forbid lawmakers from accepting donations from lobbyists as well as political action committees while in session.

Policies are more restrictive in 16 other states. Lawmakers in Illinois and Oklahoma cannot hold fundraising events in their capital’s home county during sessions, though each state provides for exceptions. The remaining 14, including neighboring Maryland and Virginia, prohibit legislative contributions entirely during session. At least five states extend their limits 30 days before a regular session, and in some cases a similar time period afterward.

But the restrictive states include Oregon, where the NCSL says the state’s attorney general issued a ruling in 2001 that said the law was unconstitutional and would not be enforced. Judges, meanwhile, have struck down similar bans in Ohio, Missouri and North Carolina.

Nearly all of these states with complete bans also don’t share West Virginia’s tight election window. If applied this year, Green’s bill would leave state lawmakers with less than two months to raise funds before the May 8 primary. Of those states with primaries that follow their regular sessions, Indiana features a fundraising period that’s four days shorter. The rest all offer longer periods, including eight that allow for at least an extra month. For two states, Nevada and Texas, their bans would not apply at all because they’re not holding regular sessions in 2012.

Those questioning the scope and potential effects of Green’s bill include Senate President Jeff Kessler. A legislator since 1997, Kessler said last year’s special primary race created an unusual situation. He said that lawmakers typically hold fundraisers during the monthly, three-day series of interim study meetings that are scheduled when the Legislature is not in session.

The Marshall County Democrat said he planned to hold one during the interims that preceded the ongoing session, but postponed it a few days to avoid conflicting with a fundraiser held by House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne. Kessler noted that a fundraiser during interims could draw from the same pool of lobbyists and Charleston-area figures on hand for events during the regular session. While lawmakers do not vote on and pass bills during interim meetings, they do study and draft legislation for the next regular session.

Kessler also views Green’s bill as overly broad. It could be read to prohibit lawmakers from fundraising beyond their own campaigns, Kessler said. At the same time, it singles out just one of the three branches of government and also excludes candidates challenging legislative incumbents.

“There’s nothing that would keep your opponent, who is not in the Legislature, from having a fundraiser in Charleston every single night of the week,” Kessler said. He added, “You’d be effectively unable to fund your campaign.”

At least 11 states with session-related limits also apply them to other officeholders. At least extend their bans to non-incumbent candidates. Green said he’s willing to expand the bill to include all legislative candidates, while ensuring that lawmakers could help raise funds for non-profit groups while in session.

“I just don’t want it to become commonplace,” Green said. “To me it’s a taboo, a public perception issue.”

Associated Press staff writers Amanda Iacone in Charleston contributed to this article. Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/lmessina

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