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Virginia, an 'outlier' on campaign finance reform, considers new restrictions

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Virginia is one of 10 states with no contribution limits on individual donors to political candidates and one of just five with no limits on contributions by corporations.

It is one of 18 states with no restrictions on state party committees’ ability to contribute money to a candidate’s campaign.

Virginia also is one of 10 states that allow political action committees to contribute unlimited amounts of money to candidates.

A new state panel, the Joint Subcommittee to Study Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform, is assessing whether to recommend changes in Virginia law to the General Assembly. The panel is tasked with producing a report for legislators by Nov. 1.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, the panel’s chairman, said Monday at the group’s first meeting, that he hoped to first gauge: “In what sense is our campaign finance system an outlier?”

Christi Zamarripa, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures, set out to give the panel some perspective.

Among the 40 states that limit how much money an individual can donate to a candidate, the caps on donations in legislative campaigns range from a high of about $13,700 in Ohio to a low of $180 in Montana. The median of such limits is about $2,800, Zamarripa said.

The other nine states with no limits on individual donors to candidates are: Pennsylvania, Indiana, Alabama, Iowa, North Dakota, Nebraska, Texas, Utah and Oregon.

Twenty-two states prohibit corporate contributions to political campaigns and 23 states set limits. Aside from Virginia, the other four states with no such limits are Oregon, Utah, Nebraska and Alabama.

Zamarripa said 14 states provide some sort of public financing options for campaigns.

In some states, Zamarripa said, candidates are encouraged to raise enough money in small donations to demonstrate their candidacies have enough public support to warrant public funding. Candidates then agree to forgo high-dollar contributions. In other states, candidates who agree to limit expenditures to a certain amount receive matching funds from the state.

Senators earlier this year killed Simon’s bill that would have banned personal use of campaign money, a measure that cleared the House of Delegates with no opposition. Senators instead promised to study campaign finance reform.

Simon’s original bill was short and would have banned lawmakers from using campaign money for personal use, other than for child care. The State Board of Elections would create regulations for implementing the bill. In the Senate, which is more closely divided than the House and includes several moderate Democrats, lawmakers first discussed making the bill more specific about expenditures that would still be allowed, and then lawmakers in both parties recommended studying the issue in order to arrive at a bipartisan approach.

The legislature has tasked the subcommittee with examining the costs of campaigning in Virginia, the effectiveness of Virginia’s present disclosure laws and their enforcement, the constitutional options available to regulate campaign finances, and “the desirability” of revisions such as implementing contribution limits.

In submitting a report by Nov. 1, the panel could recommend proposed changes for the new governor and legislature to review during the 60-day legislative session that begins in January. The effort comes as the election for governor is shattering state fundraising records. Through June 30, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glen Youngkin had combined to raise nearly $40 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Given the short timetable before the report is due, and that some members of the panel are busy seeking re-election to the House of Delegates, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, urged fellow members of the subcommittee to be “grounded in reality” rather than “aspirational.”

Virginia panels have aspired before. In 1992, then-Gov. Doug Wilder set up a commission that made dozens of recommendations about campaign finance and ethics, most of which remained on the shelf with the binder.

By the end of Monday’s meeting, it appeared panel members will first renew focus on barring lawmakers’ personal use of campaign funds.

(In 2016, The Associated Press found that some Virginia legislators used campaign funds to pay for hotels and meals, as well as things like gasoline and phone bills.)

Earlier in the meeting, several speakers urged members of the subcommittee to think more broadly.

“The commonwealth’s campaign finance laws are inadequate,” said Janet Boyd of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, which also is reviewing campaign finance laws in the state.

Speaker Mike Hatfield said it is clear from Zamarripa’s presentation that states adjoining Virginia have some limits on political contributions by individuals and by corporations.

“If we don’t set limits, the public trust will be damaged,” he said.

Speaker Stephen Spitz spoke on behalf of failed legislation to bar donations from public service corporations — such as Dominion Energy — to state politicians. He asserted it is a conflict of interest for utilities to contribute to legislators who have oversight roles.

The panel’s members are: Simon; Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico; Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax; Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth; Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford; Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County; Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, the vice chair; Norment; Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington; Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax; and citizen members Allison Blow, Ann Hess and Natalie Robinson. One citizen member’s spot is vacant.

Bulova said he doesn’t want the subcommittee to produce recommendations that have no chance to pass the legislature.

“I want to be as aggressive as possible, but I also know this is a consensus-driven process,” he said.

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