It never seems to be the right time for campaign finance reform in Virginia

March 5, 2021 12:03 am
A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 11, 2018)

A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Sept. 11, 2018)

St. Augustine — who famously longed for chastity and continence, but not just yet — would recognize a similar spiritual conundrum in Virginia senators on campaign finance reform.

Sure thing. Just not right now.

Last month, in the waning days of the 2021 General Assembly session, the Senate, on a voice vote, (which means there wasn’t a roll taken) killed legislation that would have barred lawmakers from using campaign money for personal expenses. It would have been a modest, commonsense guardrail in Virginia’s Wild West campaign finance landscape.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who carried the bill — which passed the House of Delegates 100-0 —  said he was “obviously disappointed” the Senate “couldn’t find a way to live under the same rules as the federal government and at least 47 other states.” He had told the Associated Press, when it looked like a break-through was possible, that it was his eighth year sponsoring the bill.

An anti-corruption group, the Coalition for Integrity, which ranks Virginia worse than all but five other states on its S.W.A.M.P. index, was flabbergasted.

“I cannot believe they killed the bill,” Shruti Shah, the group’s president and CEO, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

I can.

Real campaign finance reform is an issue whose time never seems to come in Virginia, despite occasional outbreaks of progress, like Sen. David Suetterlein’s bill last year that forced lawmakers to disclose in a timely fashion who’s showering them with cash right before they start voting on legislation.

Nancy Morgan, a coordinator with the Virginia chapter of American Promise, which advocates for a constitutional amendment to end big money in politics, has spent the past few years unsuccessfully trying to convince Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly to enact donation limits and other reforms.

“We have said Virginians have been waiting 30 years for this,” she said. “On the Senate side, there’s always been this sort of complacency.”

A commission assembled in the wake of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s gift scandal (the Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government) recommended a range of reforms, including tightening restrictions on personal use of campaign funds. Before that, there was the Governor’s Commission on Campaign Finance Reform, Government Accountability and Ethics and Related Matters. The panel, convened by Gov. Doug Wilder, called for, among other things, campaign contribution limits, back in 1992.

Many lawmakers claim to not see a problem that needs fixing, pointing to Virginia’s disclosure laws as superior to actual campaign limits. But, Morgan said, that disclosure is made accessible because of the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit, not because of any governmental entity. And as far as what exactly they’re spending all that money on, you can get some information via VPAP, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether it’s an actual campaign-related expense.

The form the state requires for campaign expenditures doesn’t exactly demand a lot of details. In 2016, Associated Press reporter Alan Suderman, as part of a sprawling review of Virginia campaign spending, noted that “behavior that would get lawmakers locked up in other states or at the federal level is perfectly fine in the Old Dominion. Virginia is the only state where lawmakers can raise unlimited campaign donations from anyone, including corporations and unions, and spend the money on themselves.”

Then, as now, candidates, including those who haven’t faced a serious challenge in years, can amass huge war chests to dissuade potential opponents and can throw it around pretty much however they like, from meals  and “community goodwill” to travel and lodging and legal expenses, in addition to anything else they can dream up.

“What everyday Americans expect is for campaign funds to be used for their campaign,” said Beth Rotman, director of money in politics and ethics at Common Cause, a national nonpartisan good government group. “You need a robust oversight agency to actually make that possible and you need more regulations than what you have currently in Virginia.”

Combining relatively low legislative pay — $17,640 for delegates and $18,000 for senators, plus per diems — with unlimited campaign donations and barely any restrictions on how it can be spent is a recipe for trouble. A 2014 investigation by the Daily Press’ Dave Ress found “legislators who are paid, officially, as part-timers, but who have access to tens of thousands of dollars a year more in allowances, fringe benefits and campaign funds — and who are held to only the most minimal accounting for how they use that money.” The Washington Post editorial board noted in 2013, in the midst of the McDonnell scandal, that lawmakers could quite literally “live off lobbyists for virtually any expense, large or small.”

Rotman and other reformers favor a small donor system with matching public funds, as in New York and Connecticut, to give candidates an incentive to seek money from regular people, not just those who can write the biggest checks.

“Right now the wealthy special interests are well aware they’re getting a great return on their investment,” Rotman said.

But instead of reform, this year we’re getting another study, via legislation by Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, which creates a joint subcommittee to study “comprehensive campaign finance reform.” It will be tasked with “examining the costs of campaigning in the commonwealth, the effectiveness of the commonwealth’s present disclosure laws and their enforcement, the constitutional options available to regulate campaign finances and the desirability of specific revisions in the commonwealth’s laws, including the implementation of contribution limits, all with the aim of promoting the integrity of, and public confidence in, the commonwealth’s campaign finance system.”

To prevent it from becoming just another adornment for a dusty shelf that gets ignored by people in the legislature who may, shockingly, be reluctant to limit the degree of impunity with which they can spend lots and lots of money, the League of Women Voters of Virginia is attempting to drum up some attention from the citizenry.

“It seems like that in Virginia there isn’t a sufficient groundswell of interest, enough to put pressure on these members,” said Janet Boyd, a volunteer with the league who’s worked on campaign finance reform. “Because clearly in previous iterations of these subcommittees, the engagement was weak enough that they could discount it.”

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]