Va. Senate panel advances bill forcing lawmakers to reveal big pre-session donations

The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia General Assembly members would have to disclose who’s giving them big checks right before they vote on new laws under a bill that passed out of a state Senate committee Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Salem, would require lawmakers to disclose donations over $1,000 during the annual pre-session fundraising blitz, when organizations and companies with business before the legislature are looking to win favor with key legislators.

Lawmakers are barred from raising money during the session itself. But under current campaign finance deadlines, they don’t have to disclose their pre-session fundraising until after the session is over and bills are well on their way to becoming law.

A flyer for a pre-session fundraiser for incoming House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. (Virginia Mercury)

Suetterlein told the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee his proposal was similar to an existing law requiring political candidates to reveal big last-minute donations received prior to an election. Disclosing money that could influence an election, Suetterlein said, may even be less important than disclosing money that could influence state policy.

“That money may be used for purposes of Facebook advertising for legislation we might be doing, all sorts of things,” Suetterlein said.

The bill, which would cover donations made between Jan. 1 and the start of future legislative sessions, passed the Democratic-controlled committee 11-4, with three Democrats and one Republican voting against it.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, was one of the Democrats opposed to the idea. She suggested lawmakers are busy enough preparing for the session without having to worry about disclosing donations immediately as they come in.

“What you have is just a cascading number of things that have to be done the first week or so of January,” Howell said. “If there was some other way to do it, some other timeframe, I might be interested in this.”

Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, who also opposed the bill, questioned Suetterlein about what problem he was trying to solve.

“Are you trying to satisfy the press?,” Spruill asked.

“I’m a Republican,” Suetterlein responded. “I don’t think I can ever satisfy the press.”

The committee delayed action Tuesday on more far-reaching campaign finance proposals, including bills to ban donations from state-regulated utilities like Dominion Energy and impose federal-style limits on how much money individual donors can give. Under current law, corporations and wealthy donors can give an unlimited amount of money to candidates for state office.