The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
As it gets more and more expensive to win a seat in the Virginia General Assembly, the state legislature continues to find new ways to stifle efforts to put limits on the state’s wide-open campaign finance laws.
This year, several bills meant to slow the flow of money into Virginia politics have been blocked without lawmakers taking a recorded vote showing that’s what they’re doing.
For the last decade, proposals have been introduced to create stricter campaign finance limits in Virginia and boost public confidence that the legislature can’t be bought by special interests writing checks of unlimited size.
Some Democrats have been vocal about making campaign finance reform a priority, and many have accepted big checks from Clean Virginia, a well-funded advocacy group focused on energy and campaign finance reform that says its mission is to “fight corruption in Virginia politics.”
But the party’s retaking of full control of the General Assembly this year doesn’t appear to be producing any breakthroughs on campaign finance issues as Tuesday’s crossover deadline approaches. As the two chambers rush to finish work on their own bills, no major campaign finance legislation has made it through both sides of the Capitol. If those positions hold in the second half of the session, none of the bills will win final passage.
Instead, Democratic-sponsored campaign finance proposals are languishing in Democratic-controlled committees, where several bills have been allowed to expire without a hearing.
When Del. Josh Cole, D-Prince William, presented a bill that would prohibit candidates from accepting campaign money from public utilities like Dominion Energy, the proposal died without a vote when no one on the 22-member House Privileges and Elections Committee made a motion for or against it. A bill sponsored by Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, that would have set caps on donations from both corporations and individuals was never docketed by the same committee.
In an interview, Cole said he’ll keep fighting for campaign finance reform, despite his latest bill failing in an unusual fashion.
“Time will tell what will happen,” Cole said. “The appetite is definitely there for it.”
On the Senate side, another utility-focused campaign finance reform bill sponsored by Sen. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, made it out of the chamber’s elections committee, but stalled when it was sent to the Finance and Appropriations Committee. It never got a hearing there, despite being projected to have no impact on the state budget.
When asked why Roem’s bill wasn’t docketed, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, criticized the bill itself instead of offering any procedural explanation.
“The people who are complaining about Dominion being a monopoly want to replace them,” Lucas said. “They want to be the monopoly. So what’s the difference?”
Clean Virginia’s critics have often accused the organization and its main funder, wealthy Charlottesville investor Michael Bills, of engaging in a new form of influence-peddling by offering substantial checks to lawmakers who vow to stop accepting money from Dominion.
In an interview, Roem didn’t sound disheartened over her bill’s fate.
“This is the first time we’ve ever gotten out of committee. This still marks progress,” Roem said. “Clearly we have more steps to go.”
Nancy Morgan, a campaign finance reform advocate with BigMoneyOutVA, said Democratic leaders appear to be “strong-arming the members to kill the bills in untransparent ways.”
“Not allowing bills to be voted on, or even heard by legislators, is anathema to our democratic process,” Morgan’s group said in a statement last week.
A seemingly less controversial proposal to prohibit spending campaign cash on personal uses unrelated to politics — something already banned at the federal level and in almost every other state — looked to be on track to pass this year after clearing the state Senate 35-4 and passing the House elections committee unanimously. But the House version was bottled up in the budget-writing committee after three state agencies estimated it would cost them more than $745,000 to add more staff to implement the law.
However, the legislature’s own fiscal analysts sharply disagreed with that figure, saying the law would create virtually no new costs and wouldn’t substantially add to anyone’s existing workload.
“It just seemed highly inflated,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, who chairs the House elections committee and formally requested a second opinion on the steep cost estimate.
In a written analysis attached to the personal use bill, staffers at the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said they concluded the proposal wouldn’t substantially burden state agencies after looking at similar laws in Georgia and Tennessee. Both states already have systems for investigating complaints and issuing advisory opinions similar to what the Virginia proposal envisioned, JLARC found, and the strain on staff is minimal because there are usually just a few cases to handle per year.
“JLARC estimates the fiscal impact of the bill would be negligible,” the General Assembly’s analysts said in their rebuttal to the estimates from the Virginia Department of Elections and Virginia Department of Corrections.
The JLARC statement didn’t address an additional $429,426 estimate from the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares, which claimed it would need two additional attorneys and a paralegal to help implement the law.
Despite JLARC disputing the projected costs of the personal use bill, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said its chances of passage are now “slim to none” after failing to pass the House. The House can still take up the Senate version of the bill, but Simon said it’s unlikely to be a priority for the body late in the session as lawmakers try to finalize more big-ticket items.
Despite Simon’s less-than-optimistic prediction about the fate of efforts to ban the personal use of campaign money, Clean Virginia said it still hopes a “commonsense ban” can pass this year after clearing the Senate with an “overwhelming bipartisan majority.”
“Passage of this bill would represent a strong first step towards comprehensive campaign finance and ethics reform in Virginia,” said Clean Virginia Legislative Director Dan Holmes.
General Assembly members and statewide officeholders are prohibited from raising campaign funds during legislative sessions, but the latest effort to extend that ban to special sessions also appears to be on track to die without lawmakers attaching their names to a vote.
A bipartisan bill banning fundraising during “active” special sessions made it to the Senate floor. But in an unrecorded voice vote last week, the Senate chose to send the bill back to its elections committee, a maneuver that killed the bill because the panel was already done with its work on Senate bills.
On the floor, Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said the bill “had a lot of issues.”
“It’s going to create more problems than it’s going to solve,” Surovell said.
Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, the bill’s sponsor, objected to the move, saying his legislation appeared to be heading for the same death by unrecorded vote that often befalls bills to ban the personal use of campaign funds.
“Every year it found a different way to die on an unrecorded vote,” Suetterlein said.
Mercury reporters Nathaniel Cline and Charlie Paullin contributed to this story.
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Author: Graham Moomaw
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