A House of Delegates Privileges and Elections subcommittee voted five to three to recommend tabling State Senator John Bell’s (D-Loudoun) bill to ban the use of campaign funds for personal use. The Senate passed the bill 37 to three but if the Privileges and Elections Committee follows the subcommittee’s recommendation, the bill will falter. That’s not a new pattern for Virginia – in 2021 when Democrats controlled both chambers, a similar bill passed out of the House with unanimous support but the bill faltered in the state Senate committee.
Bell told the subcommittee that his bill was the result of a summer campaign finance joint subcommittee.
“Over the years, I know we’ve had many bills in this subject area, frankly, by members of both parties. This is a really tough area to go into, I want to just say to the committee as we get into it. And we took the bill that started off, we heard testimony, and we worked with stakeholders again and worked with members of both parties, and we dialed the bill back in a few areas,” he said.
“This isn’t a perfect bill. It doesn’t hit every area of campaign finance. It’s a start. I think if we tried to do a perfect bill, we’re going to end up with more problems than we want,” he said.
Bell said, “I really believe this in my heart: the people here in Richmond, I think both parties, we all come here to do the right things. And frankly, I don’t think the biggest abusers of personal use are people who are serving here in Richmond. The biggest abuses I’ve seen are candidates who lost and still had large amounts of money in their accounts.”
In 2016, the AP reviewed Virginia campaign donations and expenditures and found that politicians are spending donated funds on fancy restaurants, hotels, and personal bills, with some appearing to use campaign finances as personal income.
All the committee Republicans voted against the bill, and all the committee Democrats voted for the bill.
Delegate Kim Taylor (R-Dinwiddie) expressed concern about a provision of the bill that allows candidates to use campaign funds for childcare, but Delegate Candi Mundon King (D-Prince William) said that was a critical provision to allow working-class Virginians to run for office.
The bill would allow donors or people qualified to vote in the candidate’s election who believe a violation may have been committed to file a complaint with the Department of Elections.
“So if someone contributes a dollar to me, then they can lodge a complaint, no matter where they live, is the way I gathered this. And then if someone lives in my district that doesn’t support me, can file a complaint,” Delegate Rob Bloxom (R-Accomack) said.
Delegate Margaret Ransone (R-Westmoreland) told Bell, “I’ve heard you say a couple of times, this is a start, this is a beginning. I personally am uncomfortable putting something in code that’s a start.”
“Putting something in code that’s not perfect, that’s not just right, I feel like is wrong. We established a work group. My understanding is that the work group never came to a consensus together collectively on legislation and voted collectively as a majority,” she said. “I agree we probably need to come up with guidance and some guidelines.”
The House and the Senate have passed Delegate David Bulova’s (D-Fairfax) HJ 53 to continue the campaign finance reform subcommittee. Ransone suggested that Bell’s bill could be a starting point for that subcommittee’s work.
Responding to Bloxom, Bell said, “We’ve tried to take out the most problematic things, because the intent is not to catch a candidate with frivolous complaints.”
He responded to Ransone, noting that Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) had supported the bill as a good start, and that there’s a need to start somewhere.
Bell said, “If it’s the will of the committee, I’ll certainly continue to work on this. But I will say I think it’s going to be hard at any point for us to get a perfect solution in this area.”
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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “John Bell” by John Bell. Background Photo “Virginia State Senate Chamber” by Waldo Jaquith. CC BY-SA 2.0.