Does Virginia’s Latest Campaign Finance Bill Go Far Enough?

By Ashley Spinks Dugan

December 30, 2020

A bill going before the General Assembly next month would place limits on money in state politics.

RICHMOND-Everyone’s familiar with the age-old contention: Money is the root of all evil. While the adage may be hyperbolic, many voters and activists in Virginia do believe that unlimited campaign contributions corrupt the political process. Virginia is one of only five states that does not impose any limits on campaign contributions—whether they come from an individual, corporation or political action committee (PAC). 

Progressive legislators have endeavored for years to place limits on money in state politics. The latest attempt comes in the form of HB 1756, which would ban campaign donations from most public service corporations. Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-Herndon) is sponsoring the proposed legislation, which has garnered lukewarm support from activists ahead of the General Assembly’s new session. Passing the bill would be merely a tiny step toward activists’ ultimate goal: a blanket campaign limitations bill which puts clear restrictions on all contributions.

Activists Offer Feedback

Nancy Morgan is a retired economist and the Virginia chapter coordinator of American Promise. The group seeks an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The 2010 ruling classified political donations as speech and affirmed the right of corporations and unions to advocate for political candidates via unlimited contributions to PACs and other organizations. 

BigMoneyOut, a grassroots group affiliated with American Promise, advocates for campaign finance reform at the state level. Morgan said while BigMoneyOut decided to support Samirah’s bill on principle, the delegate is facing “a lot of pressure” to revise the language or abandon the bill entirely in favor of a more comprehensive reform effort. 

In fact, Morgan said if Samirah’s bill reaches the floor of the Virginia General Assembly, she personally “will be willing to testify against it.” Del. Samirah did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Samirah’s bill does ban campaign contributions from public service corporations such as electric and gas companies. However, it exempts telecommunications and telephone companies. Morgan said that’s a problem, because many telecom companies have monopolies in their respective markets. They use political donations, Morgan argued, to increase their own profits even further. This happens by lobbying legislators for subsidies and disincentivizing competitors. 

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The Latest Attempt at Reform

Morgan pointed to more comprehensive bills from last year’s session to highlight HB 1756’s inadequacies. 

Last year, state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) introduced SB 25, while Del. Joshua Cole (D-Fredericksburg) sponsored its companion bill in the House (HB 111). SB 25 prohibited any public service corporation from donating to a political candidate, although Petersen seemed especially focused on curtailing the influence of Dominion Power. After the bill failed to make it out of committee on a 10-5 vote, Petersen expressed his frustration through a social media statement. Dominion has donated $12 million to state politicians since 1996, he wrote. The power company is the largest political donor in Virginia and “nobody else is close.” 

“Of course, these donations manipulate public policy,” Petersen said, pointing to the 2015 “rate freeze” law that resulted in ratepayers being overcharged by more than $1 billion. 

Del. Samirah served as co-patron of Petersen’s bill, Morgan said, and agreed to introduce a similar bill in 2021. Somehow, she said, “the language got watered down.” 

Asked for comment about the impact of the company’s campaign contributions, Dominion Energy spokesman Rayhan Daudani said, “We’re focused on developing the largest offshore wind project in the Americas and executing on the clean energy goals laid out by policy makers in Virginia earlier this year.

Dominion Energy’s political contributions are paid by shareholders, not customers. Our contributions are fully transparent on behalf of our nearly 15,000 workers in Virginia.”

Money Corrodes Individual Influence

Morgan cares deeply about what she sees as the corrosive effect of money on democracy. Huge contributions from deep-pocketed donors can swing elections, she said. That happens by supporting massive ad campaigns or providing candidates that are less broadly popular with enough resources to overcome that deficit. 

“We’re disenfranchised in our democracy because of money in politics,” Morgan said. One huge donation can overwhelm thousands of individual small-dollar contributions. But citizens are also disenfranchised by virtue of the fact that politicians feel beholden to a select few rich people, rather than their entire constituency. 

“Our confidence in our institutions and our elected officials is so low because people agree that there’s this corruption,” Morgan said. “The policies that people care about, our elected officials aren’t voting on.” 

If those arguments fail, however, the idea of “corruption” can seem opaque to everyday Virginians. Morgan offered one final framing for the issue. She compared the kitchen-table concern of household budgets and that of corporate campaign contributions. 

Framing the Campaign for Consumers

“When you couch it in the issue (of) access to affordable electricity or broadband,” Morgan said, people tend to pay attention. 

She returned to broadband companies, which again, Samirah’s bill fails to regulate. Around 600,000 Virginians lack access to broadband. Rural Virginians in particular struggle to access internet connections. That’s because it’s difficult to make the financial case for infrastructure in areas with low population density. It’s expensive to build out fiber networks in places where people live far apart. And even after the networks are built, broadband companies can’t reach enough potential customers to recoup their costs. Untraditional models such as cooperatives and municipal broadband authorities have found some success in more rural areas.

One way Virginia addresses this inequity is through broadband deployment grant programs, such as the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI). However, lobbyists for companies like Cox and Comcast want to place restrictions on municipal broadband authorities applying for these grants. Limiting municipal authorities to short-term pilot programs or only a small percentage of overall funding would help large broadband companies avoid serious competition. Less competition means higher consumer costs, Morgan said. That’s a tangible consequence in people’s day-to-day lives, and yet another reason to limit corporate contributions.

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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