Tourists pass through the rotunda in the Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Which came first: a state legislator’s stance on an issue, or a campaign contribution? 

This quasi-“chicken-or-the-egg” question arises whenever lawmakers accept money from people and corporations with business before the Virginia General Assembly. 

Correlation isn’t always causation, as one researcher reminded me. Yet “coincidences” are simply too striking to ignore. 

Nor would you expect contributors to continue bankrolling legislators who voted against their interests. I mean, what would be the point?

That brings me to a Virginia Mercury news story about the commonwealth’s only private prison, the Lawrenceville Correctional Center. My colleagues Graham Moomaw and Ned Oliver noted the prison operator, GEO Group, sprinkled around donations — like so much pixie dust — in the run-up to a proposed bill banishing the for-profit corrections industry from Virginia.

The Florida-based company did so even though it hadn’t done major gift-giving to legislators in the commonwealth for more than a decade, according to campaign finance records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project. 

Of course. When your government contract isn’t threatened, why waste money? 

Twenty-nine state legislators received GEO’s largesse. Some of those who got GEO’s money spoke out the strongest against Sen. Adam Ebbin’s bill in committee. The panel defeated the legislation 11-3. 

As an aside, President Joe Biden issued an executive order this week forcing the U.S. Justice Department to end its reliance on private prisons. GEO Group, which also operates federal facilities, said in a statement the executive order is “a solution in search of a problem.”

I’m making no conclusions here about the effectiveness of private versus public prisons. Nor am I saying the folks in Richmond who received GEO cash likely changed their opinions about the company, or how they think Lawrenceville is run.

Besides, many companies donated much, much more money than GEO’s $35,000 in the period from 2017 through 2020, according to VPAP. The million-dollar contributors from 2020 to the present include Dominion Energy, a perennial shot-caller in Richmond.

But GEO and other companies certainly believe they can influence votes by pumping cash into the coffers of candidates and elected officials. 

Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, was GEO’s biggest beneficiary, receiving $10,000. He also happens to be chairman of the important House Appropriations Committee. 

“We do not comment on individual contributions or speculate on donors’ motivations,” Torian’s spokeswoman, Gianna DeJoy, told me by email. “Of course, no contributions influence the chairman’s legislative actions.”

Should we take the spokesperson’s word on this? Motivation is a tough thing to discern, after all. 

A GEO spokesperson earlier told my Virginia Mercury colleagues the company “has had a long-standing partnership” with the state and supports candidates who recognize “the important role we play in providing high-quality services.”

This issue recurs so much in Virginia because we’re such a wide-open state on campaign financing. The National Conference of State Legislatures says we’re one of just five states that sets no limits on the amount of contributions to candidates. What’s more, there are vanishingly few restrictions on how they can spend the money. 

The commonwealth is “really an ‘anything goes’ state,” said Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public policy and government affairs at the nonpartisan group Common Cause. 

In addition, a system premised on contacting donors to fund your ongoing career is fraught with potential compromises. The people who cut the checks, Spaulding noted, get to direct lawmakers’ priorities.

“It’s often human nature that money comes with strings attached,” he added. “It leads to the appearance that those who pay for the campaign call the tune.”

This can lead to possible conflicts of interest, especially on important matters that affect lots of Virginians. One solution would be to at least put a cap on the amount of donations — which, of course, Virginia doesn’t.

 Such scrutiny of campaign cash is unfair to legislators who genuinely would vote the same way on an issue, regardless if they’re getting money from a particular individual or company. It’s difficult, though, to assess the amount of influence — if any — donations have on politicians.

That always leads to the following question: Who do legislators serve – their constituents, or their benefactors? 

The folks with the cash, after all, wouldn’t donate if they thought their contributions were meaningless.