Virginia has among the weakest laws on restricting money in politics in the country, but now that our state is the 22nd state supporting efforts for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics, we looked with optimism to see what finance reform bills might pass in the General Assembly. Our pay-to-play state is one of only five with no limits on campaign contributions, despite a study undertaken three decades ago that recommended limitations and the fact that over 75 percent of voters, irrespective of party, want to get big money out of politics.
Disappointingly, all but one of the campaign finance bills were defeated this session. Despite being ranked 46 out of 50 states by the SWAMP index (a Coalition for Integrity report on ethics regulations), our Assembly didn’t even have the will to pass a bill restricting personal use of campaign contributions. Travel to the Bahamas, personal mortgage payments, the sky is the limit for Virginia legislators.
This year’s bill (HB 1952) introducing restrictions on campaign war chests sailed through the House of Delegates, 100-0, but Senators bemoaned the challenge of knowing whether they could buy pizza for their canvassers. Senator Jill Vogel called the bill “a significant policy change,” despite our critical need for such a law and having introduced a similar bill herself last year. Well, now our Virginia senators can continue to buy pizza with campaign donations and eat it themselves.
David Bulova’s bill (HB526) passed and proposes a campaign finance study through a joint commission. Never mind that studies have been conducted in previous years, but perhaps after this most recent study, the Assembly will be ready to look at what citizens voted for years ago and pass necessary laws to get big money out of politics; this will be critical to establishing a legislature that represents people, and not profits.
Virginians know that pay-to-play politics favors large corporations that can afford huge political contributions and blocks small companies and regular citizens from access to lawmakers. Campaign finance legislation is introduced every year in the Commonwealth, but these bills either never get out of committee or, as happened this year, they are killed by the “grim reapers” in the Virginia Senate.
Virginians deserve financial accountability and transparency from their state legislators. Call your legislators and let them know that remaining “stupid” about the financial cost of pay-to-play politics costs everyday citizens too much. Citizens want to have their voices heard. Get big money OUT of politics.
Kate Simpson is secretary of the Winchester-Frederick County Democratic Committee.