The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
After getting off to a slow start in 2021, it looked like the Virginia General Assembly’s joint subcommittee on campaign finance reform was going to get through 2022 without having a single meeting.
Then a meeting appeared on the legislative calendar for Dec. 12. A few days later, it was canceled. And no other dates have been set ahead of the fast-approaching 2023 legislative session that starts in January.
For a second year in a row, the subcommittee created to take a “comprehensive” look at whether the state needs stronger limits on money in politics appears to be failing to complete its only task.
Nancy Morgan, a campaign finance reform advocate with the group BigMoneyOutVA, called the subcommittee’s persistent idleness “another lost opportunity.”
“Clearly incumbents in our General Assembly have no interest in changing the status quo which benefits them individually,” Morgan said.
The subcommittee was created early last year as a way to review proposals to limit the amount of money corporations and individuals can donate to Virginia politicians. The panel, which met four times in the late summer and fall of 2021, was also supposed to study more straightforward legislation to make it illegal to spend campaign cash on personal expenses unconnected to politics, something banned in federal elections and almost every other state. Virginia currently has virtually no limits on how much money political campaigns can accept from one source and no law prohibiting politicians from spending that money on themselves instead of their campaigns.
When the subcommittee ran out of time to do a comprehensive study in 2021 (the justification at the time was delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic), the General Assembly re-upped it for another year by approving an extension in March. That extending resolution, which passed both chambers unanimously, instructed the subcommittee to finish its meetings by Nov. 30.
That’s the reason the Dec. 12 date was scrubbed, according to Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, who chairs the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.
“Even had we met, we couldn’t vote on anything,” Spruill said.
Spruill was named head of the Senate committee in September, a position that also made him co-chair of the campaign finance subcommittee along with Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, who chairs the House Privileges and Elections Committee. When he was given a greater role overseeing elections policy, Spruill said, no one told him that also put him partly in charge of the campaign finance subcommittee.
“I had no idea I was on it,” Spruill said.
Ransone said there was some uncertainty this year over exactly who had been appointed to serve on the subcommittee and logistical challenges in finding a time when everyone involved could come to Richmond for a meeting. Even if the subcommittee had met, she said, there was no guarantee the group would have reached consensus on any major questions.
“Sometimes we have these ongoing committees and commissions and just go on and on forever and we never come to a resolution,” Ransone said, adding that anyone with ideas on how to change the state’s campaign finance laws is welcome to “bring them to the table.”
The resolution extending the subcommittee called for a report by the first day of the 2023 General Assembly session, but it’s unlikely that a group that didn’t meet all year will have anything of substance to say.
“I’m not sure whether there will be a report,” Ransone said.
‘I don’t think that you’ll see anything organized’
Legislative studies are commonly used as a way for lawmakers to show at least some progress is being made on thorny topics that might not be ready for a vote. But most study committees actually deliver a study.
“I don’t think that you’ll see anything organized out of the joint subcommittee, which I think is a shame,” said Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, who proposed the group’s creation. “It was a really good way to vet through issues and see if you can nail down details. A lot of these proposals really do rely on getting the details right.”
Bulova said campaign finance reform bills could still be proposed in the upcoming session, but he said he’d only want the subcommittee to continue “if we really think it’s going to be useful.”
The panel’s membership is decided mostly by party leaders via the speaker of the House of Delegates and the Senate Committee on Rules. The governor is also allowed to appoint a citizen member, but that seat is currently vacant, according to the subcommittee’s website. The 14-person subcommittee was supposed to consist of 10 legislators and four citizen members.
The subcommittee’s current membership includes several high-ranking General Assembly members from both parties, including Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, and House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth. None of its members have been particularly vocal in support of campaign finance reform.
Though he was once a member, Bulova is no longer serving on the subcommittee. He said he wasn’t given a reason when he was informed that Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, was not keeping him as one of the House members.
“It was a ‘thank you for your service’ kind of letter,” Bulova said. “And that’s fine.”
Transparency vs. donation limits
The upcoming year will be a big one for money in politics, with pivotal elections happening next November for all 140 General Assembly seats. The legislative primary season next year is also expected to be unusually robust, coming after a court-supervised redistricting process that didn’t let incumbents protect themselves from primary fights the way they could in the past when the General Assembly drew its own districts.
Virginia’s campaign finance system is based mostly on disclosure, the idea that special interest influence will be held in check as long as the public can see whose dollars are going to which politicians. Reform skeptics have suggested caps on the size of donations would erode transparency and encourage more dark money spending that’s harder to track.
The rise of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy former business executive who loaned his own campaign $20 million last year, has also fueled concern that stricter limits would benefit future self-funders who could use their own fortunes to run for office. That’s not an option for candidates of more modest means, who still face pressure to raise enormous sums to be considered viable contenders. Federal courts have ruled that self-funding is constitutionally protected political expression and can’t be limited in the same way as money from outside donors.
Reform advocates have said the state badly needs to reduce the influence of special interests to boost public confidence in the legislature and avoid the appearance of pay-to-play government in Richmond.
The 2021 General Assembly resolution creating the subcommittee took note of “spiraling campaign costs” in Virginia, acknowledging that candidates spent more than $1 million in 30 state legislative races in 2019, with five contests that year exceeding $4 million. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, six of the state’s 10 most expensive House races of all time occurred in 2021.
The 2021 resolution also noted that the two major-party candidates in Virginia’s 2017 governor’s race spent more than $65 million combined. Last year, the campaigns of Youngkin and former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe smashed that number. McAuliffe’s campaign spent roughly $69.3 million. Youngkin’s campaign spent about $68.2 million.
The pressures involved with that kind of cash, the 2021 resolution said, “test the integrity of the candidates who ask for money and the donors who respond.”
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