Virginia Committee Says No Limits on Personal Campaign Donations

By Brian Carlton

January 21, 2021

For the second straight year, Sen. Petersen’s donations bill is rejected by the Elections Committee.

RICHMOND-Individuals should be able to contribute as much as they want to a political campaign. The Virginia Senate’s Elections Committee made that statement Tuesday as they rejected a proposal to limit the size of donations. 

Virginia State Sen. Chap Petersen proposed SB1233, marking the second straight year he’s filed it. The bill would have prevented anyone from giving more than $20,000 to a candidate in any state race. The candidate, their family or any political party would be able to give as much as they want. For anyone else, however, the idea was to put a strict cap in place. And unlike some other Virginia laws, this one had teeth. If you went over the limit, you had to pay up to twice that amount in fines. For example, if you went over the limit by $5,000, you could be forced to pay up to $10,000 in return. 

“The principle is very simple,” Petersen said. “We should not have unlimited contributions in Virginia. Look, money’s like water. It flows. I understand that. But that doesn’t prevent us from building dams.” 

Petersen said he’s watched too many out-of-state billionaires change the course of a campaign with one donation. They’ll never step foot in the city or county, but they play a role in deciding who represents it. 

Virginia is one of just five states that don’t have some kind of cap on individual donations. Out of the 45 that do, 22 completely ban donations from corporations. Others at least try to mirror the national average. Currently, the average spent in a governor’s race is $6,000, with $3,000 for a senator and $2,500 for a House member. 

RELATED: Virginia Lawmakers Reject Utility Contribution Ban

Committee Members Complain

Members of the Election Committee had very similar arguments to the discussion that took place last year over this bill. Republicans argued it made things less transparent. With individuals, you know who made the donation and how much. But if only companies and political action committees can donate big dollars, they argued, you’ll never know who gave or the amount. 

“When we put in limits and do these things, in my opinion it reduces the transparency,” said State Sen. Ryan McDougle. “You have an entity from out of state, let’s say it’s got Virginia for Good Government as the title. Nobody knows who’s with that, but they spent millions of dollars on ads.” 

State Sen. John Bell, meanwhile, said he liked the bill but saw some problems. 

“I like a lot of what it’s doing, but frankly I think it does disenfranchise people who aren’t wealthy,” Bell said. 

Instead, Bell proposed putting a cap on the election. That would mean saying only X amount of money can be donated for a specific race. It puts in a ceiling, preventing lawmakers from going above it with donations. 

Bell’s alternative was shot down, as was the original bill. It died by a 9-6 vote.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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