Leveling financing playing field

West Virginia’s attempt to allow underfunded candidates to receive matching public money in an effort to level the campaign playing field in the November general election is in trouble. This legislative move to minimize a wealthy opponent’s financial edge may be abandoned before its crucial first test in the November general election.

The State Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in Charleston in the dispute that now involves two of Attorney General Darrell McGraw’s key staff members. McGraw’s most recent move was to have Managing Deputy Attorney General Barbara Allen file a motion to intervene in the case with the argument that there is no possibility that the U. S. Supreme Court will uphold West Virginia’s new law to allow public funding of campaigns.

It’s an unusual position for McGraw since Senior Deputy Attorney General Silas Taylor is representing state officials who support the Legislature’s new law that provides for a public matching funds provision as an experiment in the 2012 election in the twin races for two 12-year terms on the state’s high court.

Allen Loughry, a Republican candidate for one of those two terms, has already received $400,000 in public campaign financing but could become eligible for up to $700,000 more. Loughry currently is a paid employee at the Supreme Court, working for Justice Margaret Workman, who has recused herself from hearing this case.

Two of the other four justices have also stepped aside. Justice Robin Davis has recused herself because she is running for re-election in November. And Justice Brent Benjamin has stepped aside because he “discussed the public financing program” with Loughry before the case was filed.

All this “recusing” means only Chief Justice Menis Ketchum and Justice Thomas Mchugh will be participating in the court’s decision along with three state judges who must be appointed to fill those other three vacancies.

State Democratic Party Chairman Mike Callahan has been asked by a “senior member of the staff” of the State Supreme Court to intervene in the case after he recently filed a motion in federal court urging U. S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin to speed up the decision in the pending federal case.

Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar law in another state so now critics claim Callahan wants Judge Joseph Goodwin to rule this state’s law is also unconstitutional before the State Supreme Court can decide the issue.

Callahan noted in his federal court petition that “a senior member of the staff” of the State Supreme Court asked him to intervene and get the federal court to void this state’s trial run on providing matching public funds. State Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury has suggested that action by one of his staff may be unethical.

It is fast becoming a political “soap opera” but hopefully a decision will be forthcoming soon. Don’t be surprised, though, if that decision turns out to be that West Virginia’s legislative experiment on balancing the campaign playing field with public financial help for under-funded candidates is unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, for a long time police officers have compared the use of cell phones to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Now we have a new state law in West Virginia that makes it a primary driving offense to send text messages on a hand-held device while driving and it has been in effect since July 1.

But talking on a cell phone while driving is currently only a secondary offense, which means the driver cannot be stopped for that violation alone. It will, however, become a primary offense on July 1, 2013.

Local and state law enforcement officers indicate they are still trying to educate motorists in West Virginia about these new restrictions. They say motorists have become so accustomed to using cell phones while they drive because they are convinced it is not a violation. So many times the officer merely gives the motorist a warning rather than a fine.

But texting while driving is comparable to driving while intoxicated because the motorist is usually guilty of weaving in and out of traffic, drifting into the wrong lane or erratic driving. Even while stopped at a red light, a driver who is texting is violating the new state law. And fines for the first offense are $50, the second offense $100 and the third offense $200.

Finally, some things in West Virginia never seem to change. Half a century ago, when national political candidates came to this state, they usually stopped in McDowell County as a symbol of the need for a “war on poverty.” Now, a new study by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reveals that poverty and poor health are still greatest in McDowell County. The study provides individual profiles of each county and the results indicate that nearly one of every three residents in McDowell County, or 32.6 percent, is living in poverty, nearly double the statewide average of 17.4 percent. And an even worse statistic is the fact that four of every 10 residents in McDowell County is considered to be in fair or poor health.

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