Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)
Shortly after a Virginia Senate committee voted Tuesday to defeat a bill creating an across-the-board $20,000 cap on donations to political candidates running for the General Assembly and executive branch offices, the same panel took up another bill that would have only banned political donations from publicly regulated utilities like Dominion Energy.
Republican senators on the committee quickly noted that Dominion critics have put enormous sums of money behind Dominion-averse candidates.
“I’m afraid this bill would leave them defenseless,” Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, said of the state’s utilities.
Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, pointed specifically to Charlottesville megadonor Michael Bills, the main backer of advocacy group Clean Virginia, and asked how Dominion could “counter” all the money being spent against the company.
“Well, if you’d passed the bill I had in front of you five minutes ago, you would’ve countered it,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, the sponsor of both bills that went down in defeat in just the second week of an election-year legislative session.
The votes to kill the bills were bipartisan and not particularly close, with the broader bill setting a $20,000 cap failing 5-10 and the utility-focused bill dying 3-12.
Members of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committees warned of unintended consequences if Virginia were to move away from its unlimited, transparency-based campaign finance system and joined numerous states and the federal government in setting caps on how much money candidates can accept from one source.
Because Petersen’s first bill only applied donation limits to candidates and not political caucuses or outside groups, Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, warned it would give deep-pocketed outside groups more power to dictate how campaigns should be run.
“It will be parties or caucuses or outside groups that 100% drive our messages,” Vogel said. “And I would like to drive my message.”
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, called the topic a “very complicated issue.”
“There’s no question that it’s something people want to deal with,” Surovell said. “But it’s a very big issue that’s going to take a lot of time to solve.”
To dedicate more time to the issue, the General Assembly set up a special joint subcommittee in 2021 that was supposed to study various campaign finance reform proposals and make recommendations on what the legislature should do. But that body only met a few times in 2021.
It didn’t meet at all in 2022, and didn’t produce a report that was supposed to inform legislators on the topic for the 2023 session.
Senators who opposed Petersen’s bills also raised concerns about self-funded candidates, whom courts have ruled have a First Amendment right to spend their own money on campaigns.
“Look guys, I get it — loopholes,” Petersen said. “Nearly every other state in the union has limits on campaign finance. We act like if this happens Western civilization is going to come to an end. It’s not.”
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