Campaign finance bill marks the latest attempt to change Virginia’s system.
RICHMOND-It was a rare sight for 2021. Monday’s House of Delegates vote had no opposition, nobody criticizing the move. Instead, by a unanimous 100-0 decision, the group approved HB 1952, taking a step forward for campaign finance reform.
“[This] is a bill I’ve been working on for many years,” Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) told the group. “Most of this is a correction for how it was drafted a few years ago. I don’t think anyone ever intended to make personal use [of campaign funds] legal, but this fixes it so that everyone knows it’s illegal.”
Currently, state law doesn’t offer many limits. In fact, it’s only illegal to use campaign funds for personal use once the campaign or political committee shuts down. We also highlighted last month how senators rejected proposed bans on campaign donations. Basically if you’re a Virginia politician, as long as your campaign stays open, you can currently spend that money on anything and accept donations of any size.
It’s something HB 1952 would change. The bill specifically bans anyone from using campaign contributions for personal use. There’s just one exception. The version that passed Monday allows for politicians to spend campaign dollars on childcare.
“[If] you’re campaigning and you need childcare so you can go out to campaign activities, that would be considered a bonafide campaign expense,” Simon said.
This isn’t the first or second attempt to reform Virginia’s campaign finance system. In fact, you can go back six years to then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s ethics commission and see the same kind of recommendations. In 2016, John O’Bannon, who represented Henrico County as a delegate at the time, raised eyebrows with his opposition. He argued if a politician walked out in a rainstorm and got wet on the campaign trail, he or she should be allowed to use campaign money, dollars contributed from supporters, to buy a brand new shirt.
Over the years, other lawmakers came up with additional reasons not to pass reform. One claimed it would prevent his staffers from buying donuts with campaign funds and then sharing them with family. Another argued it would limit where he could drive his car.
Even a unanimous vote doesn’t guarantee the bill becomes law. In 2019, Simon passed a very similar measure through the House with a 99-0 vote. The Virginia Senate shot it down, however. Supporters think this year’s version has more of a chance, however, as Democrats control both parts of the General Assembly.
“Nearly all states and the Federal Government ban the personal use of campaign funds,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore. The watchdog group has long since supported cleaning up the state’s campaign finance system. “We are pleased that the House recognized that, even if legislators did not abuse the current system, Virginia’s reputation was at stake. It’s now up to the Senate to follow through.”
There is currently no set timeline for when HB 1952 will be assigned to committee in the Senate.
Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].