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W.Va. special session ends in election bill debate

Jun. 29, 2008 @ 01:29 PM

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Legislature ended a special session Saturday in unexpectedly sharp debate over an election law that foes slammed as unconstitutional and openly political.

Republicans had been able to delay a final vote on the bill, extending the special session by two days. But they lacked the votes to kill the measure, which passed by a 19-9 vote in the Senate and a 68-21 margin in the House of Delegates.

“I know it’s been painted to you this way, but this is not a Democrat versus Republican issue,” Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, said in debate on the Senate floor. “It’s a constitutional issue, it’s an issue of integrity, it’s an issue of fairness.”

The Senate vote followed party lines, while one Democrat and six Republicans in the House of Delegates crossed the aisle for the vote.

The bill is one of 19 on Gov. Joe Manchin’s agenda for the session, all of which passed. It is aimed at fixing a 2005 law that requires public disclosure of spending for ads that run within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election, in cases of “a clearly identified candidate.”

The fix is needed because U.S. District Judge David Faber blocked some of the provisions of the bill concerning non-broadcast advertisements with an injunction issued in April. The judge ruled the law’s language is vague concerning media like mailings, phone calls, leaflets and e-mails.

Democrats, with commanding majorities in both chambers, knew that while they couldn’t stop Republicans from delaying the vote, they simply had to wait for their chance to pass the bill.

Partly because of that, few Democrats spoke at length Saturday, with much of the floor debate given over to Republican criticism of a bill they say tramples First Amendment rights and will likely face a court challenge.

“Republicans were shut out of this process,” Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson, said. “This became a game to show us, ’You’re outnumbered, and we can do what we want.”’

The Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom, which was behind that initial legal challenge, has vowed to sue again if the current bill passes.

In 2005, the bill won nearly unanimous passage in both chambers, but Republicans said they have become aware of major flaws in the legislation since then.

Some Republicans contend the measure is meant to protect Democratic officeholders who would be targeted by political ads from third party groups, while others said it’s intended to block such groups from aiding Republicans.

“We’re really here because this is a personal vendetta,” Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph said. Barnes argued the legislation is aimed squarely at Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, the powerful coal company executive who has spent millions trying to get Republican candidates elected to state office in West Virginia.

Democrats denied that charge, noting the bill’s disclosure laws apply to groups regardless of their ideology.

“It doesn’t favor certain groups. It just says everyone has to disclose,” Sen. Jon Blair Hunter, D-Monongalia, said.

Hunter also dismissed Republicans’ complaints that the bill should be discussed during a regular legislative session, when more time could be devoted to it.

“We’ve had opportunity under this process to give our opinion, to make our amendments,” he said. “Just because a lot of people’s amendments didn’t pass and their opinions aren’t shared by a majority of us, doesn’t mean we rammed this through.”

The special session could have ended as early as Thursday. The extra days will cost taxpayers over $70,000 in lawmakers’ pay and travel expenses.

Although it came to dominate the session, the election bill was not the only measure passed by the Legislature. Among other bills now before Manchin, lawmakers froze the state gas tax at its current rate, holding off a scheduled 6 cent per gallon increase on Jan. 1; approved $25 million to subsidize optional benefit boost payments for thousands of teachers switching pension plans; and set aside funds for purposes ranging from school bus fuel costs to greyhound training tracks.

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