A1 A1
6 months after Capitol assault, corporate pledges fall flat
Following the deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, many big corporations pledged not to donate to members of Congress who objected to the results of the presidential election

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As shockwaves spread across the country from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, corporate America took a stand against the lies that powered the mob. Or so it seemed.

Dozens of big companies, citing their commitment to democracy, pledged to avoid donating money to the 147 lawmakers who objected to Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s victory on the false grounds that voting fraud stole the election from then-President Donald Trump.

It was a striking gesture by some of the most familiar names in business but, as it turns out, it was largely an empty one.

Six months later, many of those companies have resumed funneling cash to political action committees that benefit the election efforts of lawmakers whether they objected to the election certification or not. When it comes to seeking political influence through corporate giving, business as usual is back, if it ever left.

Walmart, Pfizer, Intel, General Electric and AT&T are among companies that announced their pledges on behalf of democracy in the days after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a violent bid to disrupt the transfer of power.

The companies contend that donating directly to a candidate is not the same as giving to a PAC that supports them.

Given America’s porous campaign finance laws, that’s a distinction without a difference to campaign finance experts.

The companies’ argument also glosses over the fact that, in large measure, they did their giving through PACs before their pledge, rather than to individuals, so in many cases nothing changed.

“Pledging not to give to a certain person doesn’t mean that much when there are so many other ways that corporate money reaches elected officials,” said Daniel Weiner, a former senior counsel at the Federal Election Commission who now works at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. “These pledges are largely symbolic.”

Walmart’s moral stand lasted three months. In January, the retail giant said it would suspend all donations to the 147 lawmakers who objected to the election results. But in April, the company gave $30,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party organization that supports House Republicans in elections.

Two-thirds of those House members voted against certifying Biden’s win.

Walmart gave an additional $30,000 to the House committee’s counterpart for Senate Republicans, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That group is led by an objector to the election’s certification, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who stands to benefit from the contribution along with seven other GOP senators who also sought to overturn the will of voters. Messages left with both committees by The Associated Press were not returned.

In January, after the attack, General Electric said it would “halt donations to lawmakers who voted against certification” because “we believe it is important to ensure that our future contributions continue to reflect our company’s values and commitment to democracy.” But that’s not exactly what happened.

In April, General Electric gave $15,000 each to the House and Senate GOP election groups.

Likewise, Pfizer pledged to suspend contributions to Republican objectors for six months. But after only three months, it gave $20,000 to the GOP’s Senate group. Pfizer spokeswoman Sharon Castillo told the AP that the company drew a distinction between giving money to individual lawmakers and to groups created to help those same lawmakers. “We just don’t think it is an accurate connection,” she said.

Yet she said Pfizer had no commitment from the Senate election committee that the company’s donation would not be used to benefit the eight senators who voted against certification.

AT&T also pledged not to give money to lawmakers who objected, but the company sent $5,000 in February to the House Conservatives Fund. Company spokeswoman Margaret Boles said AT&T received assurances the money would not flow to lawmakers who objected to election results, though the PAC is led by a lawmaker who did.

Campaign finance experts say there’s no way to know whether the money given to Republican PACs will end up directly in the campaign accounts of incumbents who objected to the election results. These Republican committees, like the ones for Democrats, help incumbents in a variety of ways, whether through direct contributions or technical and professional help with voter data, advertising and get-out-the-vote assistance.

Moreover, corporate donations to the party committees do not include so-called dark money contributions given to groups that are not required to disclose details publicly. Dark money is a favored vehicle for corporate giving.

“It’s completely frustrating from an accountability point of view,” Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Stetson University Law School professor who studies corporate campaign finance.

Many of the lawmakers who objected to the certification leaned heavily on the GOP House and Senate election committees in the past and can be expected to want substantial help from them again.

For the 2020 election, the NRCC passed along contributions to 39 Republican lawmakers who later objected to the election result, compared with 11 who did not. Altogether, the objectors of Jan. 6 got five times more money in total last year than did those who later voted to certify the states’ electoral tallies.

Pfizer, GE, Walmart and other companies contacted by the AP said their criticism of lawmakers who objected to the election results stands.

For other companies, the pledges may just be a cynical attempt to look good in the eyes of the public. Few of the companies that made pledges tended to give big donations to individual lawmakers anyway, preferring the big party PACs or dark money groups.

Weiner said that if companies were serious about using their clout to support democracy, they would fund efforts to defeat Republican measures that would make it harder to vote in many states.

“I don’t think these companies are giving to these groups because they supported the insurrection,” Weiner said. “They give money — and are pressured to give money — for a lot reasons all related to their bottom line.”

Some companies did follow through on their pledges. Hallmark, for instance, said it would not donate to objectors — and the record to date shows no PAC donations by that company this year as well as no direct giving to the 147 objectors.

Hallmark also asked two objectors, Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Roger Marshall of Kansas, to return direct contributions it made to them before the insurrection. Campaign finance records do not yet show those refunds. Messages seeking comment from the two senators were not returned.

Other companies said they would halt campaign contributions following Jan. 6 to give them time to reassess their campaign finance strategy. That list includes Charles Schwab, Citigroup, Archer Daniels Midland and Kraft Heinz.

The money given to Republican groups by companies that pledged not to support objectors is small compared with the huge amounts of cash given overall. Walmart’s $60,000 contribution to the GOP Senate and House committees is just a fraction of the company’s overall political spending on both parties, which last year topped $5 million.

Companies often give money to Democrats and Republicans alike as they try to cultivate good relations with whichever party is in power. The companies behind the pledges are no exception.

Jan. 6 seemed to shake up that calibration. The violent images from the Capitol were so visceral, the assault at the core of American democracy so extraordinary and the falsehoods behind the attack so audacious that some loyal Republicans abandoned their president and denounced the objectors in their ranks.

If the objectors got their way, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that fraught night, “our democracy would enter a death spiral.”

For a time, all but the 147 seemed on the side of the angels, and corporations jostled to get on board with their pro-democracy pledges. But the devil was in the details.

Petting zoo returns to Tri-State

BARBOURSVILLE — The Great American Petting Zoo visited Tower Food Fair in Barboursville on Sunday. The free exhibit gives folks a chance to cuddle, pet and feed a variety of animals — including llamas, wallabies and African pygmy goats — through Monday, July 19, at multiple Tri-State locations.

The petting zoo’s remaining schedule includes Monday, July 5, Foodland, Chapmanville, West Virginia; Tuesday, July 6, Pic-Pac, Man, West Virginia; Sunday, July 18, Nitro Supermarket, Nitro, West Virginia; Monday, July 19, Piggly-Wiggly, Eleanor, West Virginia.

Up to 30 animals roam freely from noon to 7 p.m. in the petting zoo, including exotic sheep, Vietnamese potbellied pigs, bantam chickens, miniature call ducks and newborn animals on occasion.

Admission to the petting zoo is free with any purchase from a participating grocer. For more information, visit www.greatamericanpettingzoo.com.

Strong video lottery, scratch-off ticket play push Lottery back over $1B mark for 2020-21

CHARLESTON — Record Limited Video Lottery play and strong sales of traditional scratch-off games helped offset a difficult year for West Virginia casinos, pushing state Lottery gross revenue back over the $1 billion mark for the 2020-21 budget year, after the pandemic during most of last year ended an 18-year streak of $1 billion revenue years.

“For the year, LVL helped us along quite a bit. It helped make up for the decrease in racetrack revenues,” Lottery Director John Myers said after Wednesday’s Lottery Commission meeting.

Through May, the Lottery grossed $1.07 billion, led by a record $440 million in Limited Video Lottery play at bars, clubs and fraternal organizations around the state.

Myers told commissioners that, when June revenue is tallied, the Lottery should finish the 2020-21 budget year with gross revenue of between $1.16 billion and $1.17 billion. The budget year ended Wednesday.

During Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners renewed casino licenses for four of the state’s five casinos, and auditors concluded that, despite a tough year, all of the casinos are financially sound.

The auditor conducting the financial review of The Greenbrier casino died of a heart attack, and that audit will not be completed until mid-July, commissioners were advised.

With casinos closed for nearly three months, and then required to operate at limited capacity under social distancing protocols for the remainder of 2020, all saw sharp declines in revenue for the 2020 calendar year, although two of the four managed to record small profits, auditors said.

Those included:

  • Hollywood Casino at Charles Town, where revenue dropped from $319 million to $213 million, and profits fell from $38 million to $11.1 million.
  • Mountaineer Casino, where revenue dropped from $99 million to $69 million. The casino had an operating loss of $9.2 million, following four straight profitable years.
  • Wheeling Island Casino, which dropped from $115 million to $68 million, posting a profit of $1.5 million in 2020 after four years averaging $6.8 million a year in profits.
  • Mardi Gras Casino, which dropped from $74 million to $47 million, and had an operating loss of $2.9 million following back-to-back profitable years.

Through May 2021, video lottery and table games at the state’s four racetrack casinos brought in a total of $371.43 million for the budget year. At the same point in May 2019, the last pre-COVID fiscal year, that total was $496.18 million.

(The Greenbrier resort’s casino has been the exception, grossing $7.29 million through May 2021, compared to $6.84 million at the same point in 2019.)

While the vast majority of casino patrons are from out-of-state, play of Limited Video Lottery at neighborhood establishments around West Virginia set records for 2020-21.

Through May, video lottery grossed $440.08 million, up 22% from $360.22 million at the same point in 2019, presumably driven by federal stimulus checks and bonus unemployment benefits. Limited Video Lottery set all-time monthly records in March and April, breaking the $50 million mark each month.

In May, video lottery revenue dropped back to $45 million.

Traditional lottery game revenue of $228.6 million year-to-date is up about 24% from the same point in 2019, driven by a nearly $52 million increase in scratch-off ticket sales, an increase Myers credited to Lottery staff. Responding to player demand, the staff has cut back the number of $1 games, putting emphasis on tickets that are higher-priced, but have larger and more frequent pay-outs, he said.

For May, the Lottery had gross revenue of $111.44 million, with the state’s share of profits totaling $52.28 million. Year-to-date, the state’s share of Lottery profits is $479.76 million.

Also Wednesday:

  • Myers said that, for two of the past four weeks, racetrack video lottery revenue has outpaced LVL, which he said is an encouraging sign that the casinos are starting to bounce back.

Historically, racetrack video lottery revenue has far outpaced LVL, but the reverse has been true during the pandemic.

  • Commission Chairman Ken Greear made note of casino data showing that out-of-staters continue to make up the large majority of patrons.

Mardi Gras has the highest percentage of West Virginia patrons, at 38%, while Mountaineer, at the tip of the Northern Panhandle, draws the lowest percentage, at 3%. Wheeling Island is at 10%, while Hollywood Casino, which draws heavily from the metro-Washington area, is at 13%.

top story
WV closes out budget year with surplus, thanks to federal stimulus, double Tax Days

CHARLESTON — West Virginia closed out the 2020-21 budget year in the black on Wednesday, a year that featured the infusion of billions of dollars of federal pandemic stimulus funds and an unprecedented two income tax filing deadlines in the same fiscal year.

June overall tax collections of $497.58 million — $25.78 million above estimates — pushed total state revenue collections for the 2020-21 budget year to $4.989 billion, giving the state a year-end budget surplus of $415.34 million.

However, $119 million of that surplus is the result of reducing revenue estimates for the year, projecting that state tax collections would be that much lower compared to 2019-20 revenue projections.

“We’re in great shape in West Virginia,” Gov. Jim Justice said, announcing the revenue figures Thursday.

Justice has twice called legislators into special session this summer to appropriate nearly $400 million of the budget surplus.

Since by law, half of any year-end budget surplus must go into the state’s Rainy Day emergency reserve funds, the roughly $9 million transfer pushed the total value of those funds over the $1 billion mark.

Additionally, a special session bill passed last week transferred $50 million of budget surplus to the Rainy Day fund to pay expenses at the start of the new budget year before 2021-22 tax collections start rolling in.

June revenue collections exceeded projections even though personal income tax collections fell 23% below estimates, coming in at $156.27 million. Estimated collections for the month were $202.8 million.

The other major source of state tax collections, sales taxes, came in $22.95 million over projections at $175.75 million.

Since sales taxes are remitted to the state a month after they are collected, the June revenue represents sales activity in May, when many West Virginians were receiving their $1,400 federal stimulus checks under the American Rescue Plan.

Throughout the pandemic, Justice has downplayed the impact of federal stimulus funds on the state economy. However, in a report to the Legislature, Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow placed that impact at $5.99 billion, and that was prior to passage of the American Rescue Plan in March, which will inject more than $2 billion into the state economy.

Fiscal 2020-21 revenue collections also benefited from the rarity of having two income tax filing deadlines in the same budget year.

Tax Day 2020 was pushed back from April 15 to July 15 because of the pandemic, shifting those tax collections into the 2020-21 budget year. Fiscal 2020-21 then saw a second Tax Day on May 17, again pushed back from the traditional April 15 filing deadline.

Also Thursday, Justice noted severance tax collections, after lagging 50% below estimates as recently as January, had actually finished the budget year $23 million above estimates, at $274.25 million.

Justice did not mention that was the result of a recent surge in natural gas prices, up more than 50% over 2020, or that the state’s 2020-21 revenue estimate for severance taxes of $250.95 million amounts to a nearly $126 million reduction from 2019-20 estimates.

As he has done in the past, Justice on Thursday touted the state’s declining severance tax collections as evidence that the state economy is diversified.

June overall tax collections of $497.58 million were actually down $8.65 million from June 2020, when the state collected $506.23 million in taxes.