Virginia Senate Puts Campaign Finance Reform on Hold

By Brian Carlton

February 24, 2021

Senators argue the current bill needs more work.

RICHMOND-Virginia politicians can still use campaign funds for whatever personal use they want. On Tuesday, the Virginia Senate rejected a proposed reform bill, sending it back to committee. Senators argued HB 1952, which had been approved 100-0 by the House last week, needed more work. 

Currently, Virginia law doesn’t offer many limits in regards to how politicians can spend campaign dollars. 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 in their January session. Basically if you’re a Virginia politician, as long as your campaign stays open, you can spend that money on anything and accept donations of any size.  

State Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) argued however that passing an unfinished bill was just as bad as not doing anything. She pointed out that the current proposal would have put the Virginia Board of Elections in charge of enforcing the rules. The board would be tasked with adopting “emergency regulations to implement the provisions of the bill and to provide an updated summary of Virginia campaign finance law.” 

“In the current environment, I’m not confident that we actually have the resources right now to actually manage what this directs us to undertake,” Vogel said. 

Basically, she’s concerned a Board of Elections that will already be handling the 2021 election season and the 2020 post-election audit will be flooded with accusations. Vogel, who sponsored a similar bill several sessions ago, said she just didn’t see how the current version would work. 

“The critical component here is to actually get it right and not create an environment where we overwhelm the [Board] of Elections,” Vogel argued. 

A History of Saying No to Reform

This isn’t the first 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 to buy a shirt. 

Over the years, other lawmakers came up with 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.

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) introduced this year’s bill. In 2019, he proposed a very similar measure and got it through the House with a 99-0 vote. The Virginia Senate shot it down. 

On Tuesday, other senators pointed out this history of rejecting reform, arguing that it was time to move forward. 

“I’m not one to stand in front of a moving train, but the reality is that for many years, our constituents have been asking us [to do something],” said Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath). 

He was in the minority, however. Most senators agreed the bill needed to be studied further. 

“The bill that came out of committee is quite different than the bill that went into committee,” State Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Eastern Fairfax) said. “It’s definitely an area I think we need to look at. We need to have clearer rules on the prohibitions on the personal use of campaign funds.” 

However, Surovell also had issues with the fact the Board of Elections would be enforcing this and questioned if they could handle it. 

Virginia Senate Sends Bill Back to Committee

By a majority vote, the bill was sent back to the Privileges and Elections Committee. Not everyone took the news well. Some groups, like Clean Virginia, said it highlighted the need for new elected officials. 

“If something as simple as avoiding the appearance of corruption in Virginia can’t pass, then we must seriously consider whether we have the right people representing us,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore. “This bill would have caught Virginia up to 47 other states and the federal government. Yet, despite the bill conforming to widely accepted federal language, a majority of Virginia’s Senators couldn’t get the job done.”

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

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