April 24, 2024

Push for campaign finance reform to return in Virginia legislative session – The Virginian-Pilot

After expelled U.S. Rep. George Santos came under fire last month for allegedly using campaign funds on personal items, such as beach trips and expensive spa treatments, a leader for a local advocacy organization offered an interesting take.

“The wildest thing about this Santos debacle is that his ‘misuse’ of campaign funds would have been completely legal if he was a Virginia state legislator,” Justin Jones, political director for Clean Virginia, wrote on social media.

Del. Marcus Simon quickly responded.

“Working on that,” he wrote.

Simon, D-Fairfax, has prefiled legislation for consideration in the next General Assembly session that would prohibit politicians from using campaign donations on personal expenditures. Virginia currently has some of the most lax campaign spending laws in the nation. Politicians can legally spend campaign donations on essentially anything, and there’s no limit on who can donate or how much donors can give.

Simon has introduced various versions of the bill for several years, but it never makes it to the governor’s desk. Some legislators who opposed the measure argued new rules would confuse well-meaning politicians. Others have said donors should trust the candidates they choose to support.

During the last legislative session, several groups advocated on the bill’s behalf, including The League of Women Voters of Virginia. The league is a nonpartisan organization that works to protect democracy and voting rights.

Janet Boyd, the league’s director of voter services, told The Virginian-Pilot the organization will continue supporting the measure at the upcoming legislative session.

The legislature reconvenes on Jan. 10.

“(The league) will educate General Assembly members on the value of Delegate Simon’s personal use limitation bill during the 2024 Session,” she wrote in a Thursday email. “While we are hopeful that the General Assembly will pass the bill, we know it won’t be easy.”

Although past efforts were unsuccessful, the General Assembly will have many new faces this year, meaning the bill could potentially find new supporters. The Statehouse is in the midst of a significant shakeup due to a recent flood of retirements and resignations.

Spending on statehouse campaigns has trended upward in recent years.

In the Senate, where 40 seats are up for election every four years, about $56.2 million was spent on elections in 2019, compared with $52.5 million from 2015 and $42.6 million in 2011. This year’s election costs had already far surpassed those figures at the halfway point with about $111 million spent for Senate elections as of June 8, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

In the House of Delegates, where 100 seats are up for grabs every two years, about $81.4 million was spent on elections in 2021, up from $68.1 million in 2019 and $47 million from 2017. VPAP reported this year’s House race election costs at about $93.4 million as of June 8.

Candidates’ campaign expenditures can be viewed on VPAP’s and the Virginia Department of Elections’ websites. But the reporting requirements are vague and it’s not always clear what specific items were purchased.

Some commonly reported expenditures, like political consulting services, are clearly related to campaigning. But other charges — like to hotels, airlines, restaurants or gas stations — could more easily be for personal uses.

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, one of three legislators carrying this year’s bill in the Senate, previously told the Pilot  the struggle to enact campaign reform “really boggles the mind.”

“This is money people give you to run your campaign,” Boysko, D-Fairfax, said in April. “They should know it’s going to be spent responsibly instead of funding somebody’s long weekend in a plush hotel.”

Katie King, katie.king@virginiamedia.com 

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