RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia lawmakers, outliers in the nation for their ability to spend money donated to their campaigns on virtually anything, have ended for another year efforts to put basic limits on how those funds can be used.
A Republican-controlled House subcommittee on Wednesday defeated a bill that would have prohibited spending on what its sponsor called “the low-hanging fruit, things that are most egregious.”
Democratic Sen. John Bell said he scaled his ambitions back after running into concerns from other lawmakers that spending campaign cash on things like pizza at campaign events or campaign T-shirts could lead to frivolous, politically motivated complaints.
His measure, which cleared the Senate 37-3, didn't address food or clothing but banned the use of donations on items such as home mortgages, country club memberships, vacations, sporting event tickets or recreational club fees.
“Frankly, when a candidate or an elected official does one of these most egregious things and it hits the paper, it makes all of us look bad. And I think it hurts the trust that people have, because people should know we’re here to serve ... not to enrich ourselves,” Bell said.
After about 15 minutes of discussion, the panel voted 5-3 to defeat the bill.
The same subcommittee voted down similar personal-use ban bills by House sponsors earlier in this year’s legislative session. In contrast, a ban cleared the Democrat-controlled House unanimously last year only to die in the Democrat-controlled Senate. November's elections have changed some of the House's membership since then, flipping party control to the GOP.
After the defeat of last year's bill, a bipartisan panel was formed to study the issue. While that group did not finish its work, it issued a draft report that called for a personal-use ban, something federal candidates and candidates in most other states face.
Bell's measure was the only remaining personal-use bill, so its defeat almost certainly ends consideration of the issue during this year's regular legislative session, which ends this month.
Clean Virginia, a good governance and energy policy reform advocacy group, noted that in 2015 a personal-use ban was recommended by an ethics commission formed in response to former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s gift scandal and bribery conviction. The conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“There is nothing currently stopping a political candidate in Virginia from using unlimited campaign funds, for which there is no cap in Virginia, to purchase a vacation house or a swanky country club membership," Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said in a statement. "It’s no wonder that public trust in our elected officials is at an all-time low. This legalization of grift is deeply embarrassing for Virginia."
An Associated Press review of the state’s campaign finance system in 2016 found some lawmakers frequently using campaign accounts to pay for expensive meals and hotels as well as personal expenses such as gas and cellphone bills.
Nancy Morgan, the coordinator of a grassroots group advocating for campaign finance reform, said “the citizens of the Commonwealth are the losers” after Wednesday's action.
Lawmakers raised a range of concerns during discussion of the bill, as they did previously when the AP sought comment about the defeat of the previous measures.
GOP Del. Kim Taylor objected to a provision that would have allowed expenditures on certain child care expenses. Bell agreed to strip that provision if the committee agreed to advance the bill but noted under current law, basically any expense is already allowed.
“Again, we have nothing today. There’s nothing stopping anybody from, frankly, doing anything they want with these funds,” he said.
Bell's bill would have created a process for campaign donors or constituents to bring a complaint to the Department of Elections that could result in a civil penalty of up to $10,000.
A handful of other campaign finance measures are still alive.
One from Democratic Del. David Bulova would tighten up record retention requirements and implement reviews of campaign committee financial records by the Department of Elections. Currently, disclosures are effectively done under an honor system with no state-sponsored review.
“I can't believe we don't already have this," he said of the record retention requirements as he spoke before a Senate panel that advanced the measure Wednesday morning.
Another measure from Bulova would extend the work of the bipartisan panel studying campaign finance reform.