The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
After years of debate and multiple studies, Virginia lawmakers still aren’t ready to pass a law preventing themselves from using campaign cash on personal expenses that have nothing to do with running for office.
The last remaining bill prohibiting personal use of campaign funds died Wednesday morning in a House of Delegates subcommittee, with several legislators framing the issue as too complex to tackle even though the practice is already outlawed at the federal level and in most states.
“Putting something in code that’s not perfect, that’s not just right, I feel like is wrong,” said Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, who chairs the House Privileges and Elections Committee.
By a 5-3 vote, Republicans on the panel defeated the version of the bill that had passed the state Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, the bill’s sponsor, had told the committee his bill may not be a perfect solution, but it’s a starting point that “will take care of the most egregious things.”
“People should know we’re here to serve… not to enrich ourselves,” Bell said.
Groups pushing to rein in Virginia’s wide-open campaign finance system, which puts no limits on how much money lawmakers can accept from wealthy donors and corporations, have argued a personal use ban should be the least the General Assembly can do.
“It’s no wonder that public trust in our elected officials is at an all-time low. This legalization of grift is deeply embarrassing for Virginia,” Brennan Gilmore, executive director of the advocacy group Clean Virginia, said in a news release after the bill was defeated.
Last year, it was the Democratic-led Senate that got cold feet on the matter late in the session, blocking a bill that had passed the House 100-0 and wrapping it into a legislative study on broader campaign finance reform. That study committee recommended a ban on personal use of campaign funds, as did an ethics panel former Gov. Terry McAuliffe convened in 2014 to restore trust in government after the gifts scandal that nearly landed ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell in federal prison. But the apparent consensus fell apart this year as House Republicans abruptly reversed their stance.
In a floor speech earlier this month, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, theorized Republicans only supported the bill last year because they expected the Senate to block it.
“I think we realized that this year if we passed it, it might actually become law,” said Simon, who’s pushed for a personal use ban for years.
Opponents have raised concerns that the proposed law could allow candidates to weaponize frivolous corruption complaints against their opponents. Supporters said they too did not want to open the door to “gotcha” inquiries, and Bell noted campaign-funded food had been removed from the bill entirely to remove any confusion about when meals count as official business or a personal expense. The bill specified a few particular types of expenses that would be banned, including mortgage or rent payments, country club memberships, vacations and entertainment unrelated to a campaign.
As it passed out of the Senate, the proposal got a significant stamp of approval from Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, who usually opposes campaign finance reform bills.
“This bill is not a panacea. It is not perfect,” Norment said. “But it is an incremental movement in the right direction.”
In the proposal’s final hearing in the House Wednesday, legislators debated a carveout in the bill that allows candidates to use campaign cash on child care expenses that wouldn’t exist otherwise. That exemption was pitched as a way to allow more working people, particularly mothers, to seek public office.
Del. Kim Taylor, R-Dinwiddie, who opposed the bill, said she had reservations about the child-care exemption.
“If you have children that need child care, I do not think that should come out of campaign funding,” Taylor said. “That is a personal expense. It’s something you go into your campaign knowing you’re going to have to make arrangements for.”
Some Democrats on the subcommittee said the exemption should be broadened to also cover the care of elderly family members.
“Some people don’t have children at all and they’re just caring for ailing parents,” said Del. Michelle Maldonado, D-Manassas.
Bell’s bill called for the attorney general’s office to work with the State Board of Elections to publish guidance to help political candidates navigate the proposed ban, including examples of what would and wouldn’t be allowed. The bill would have allowed any donor or constituent to file a complaint accusing a candidate of improperly spending campaign money on themselves, with those complaints adjudicated by the State Board of Elections. Violators could have been ordered to repay any improper spending from their own money and hit with a civil fine of up to $10,000.
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