House GOP members defend defeat of campaign finance reform

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Republican legislators in the Virginia House sought to explain why they voted down a prohibition on using campaign donations for things like home mortgages, vacations and country club memberships, even though the chamber unanimously approved such a ban only last year.

Too early, not enough and not needed were some of the reasons they offered after The Associated Press asked why they killed the legislation in a party-line vote without debating the merits.

The legislation was similar to what passed the House last year. It met an unexpected end with the 5-3 subcommittee vote last week that tabled bills by a Republican and Democrat after advocates offered testimony.

Nancy Morgan, the coordinator of a grassroots group advocating for campaign finance reform, was stunned, given the House support for such a ban before the Senate spiked it last year.

“This is the lowest-hanging fruit,” she said.

Virginia is a national outlier for its loose campaign finance laws. All federal candidates and candidates in most other states are prohibited from spending campaign cash on personal matters.

Currently, Virginia officials face such a ban only when they close a campaign account, and disclosure depends on a honor system, with no regular audits like in some other jurisdictions.

The Republicans who voted to kill the measure had varied concerns.

Del. Otto Wachsmann, R-Sussex, said he wasn’t totally sure how the bill would change existing law, and noted that a campaign finance reform panel created after the Senate spiked last year’s bill hadn’t completed its work.

That bipartisan panel has, however, submitted a draft report that recommended a personal use ban.

Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, who chairs the subcommittee and supported a ban last year, reflected on the uncertainty of legislating in a chamber where all 100 seats were on the 2021 ballot and the makeup of various panels had changed since last year’s elections.

“Sometimes things that pass don’t, and sometimes things that never passed all of the sudden do,” he said, adding that he’s not aware of anyone who uses their campaign money for personal expenses.

Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, said he’s against a provision allowing campaign money to be used for certain child care expenses, saying that should apply only during campaign events.

Williams, a freshman member, made the motion to table the bills. He also said he hadn’t seen any abuses, and that he believes members are held accountable by their electronic disclosure requirements and the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.

“Any dollar that we spend, we have to report,” he said.

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 like gas and cellphone bills.

Del. Rob Bloxom of Accomack, who also supported the prohibition last year, said he prefers comprehensive campaign finance legislation.

“Doing it piecemeal, as far as I’m concerned, we begin to set ourselves up for traps,” he said

Del. Kim Taylor, R-Dinwiddie, declined to comment.

Democratic Del. Marcus Simon, who has pressed the issue for years and sponsored one of the measures killed last week, offered his thoughts on the outcome in a floor speech.

“I think we realized that this year, if we passed it, it might actually become law,” he said.

This year’s legislation would have prohibited any person from using contributions to a candidate or campaign committee to cover an expense that would exist whether or not the person held or was seeking office. The legislation listed such examples as mortgage or rent payments, clothing purchases, a country club membership, vacation, household food and tuition payments.

It allowed for contributions to be used toward child care expenses incurred as a direct result of the person seeking, holding, or maintaining office.

A different personal use ban bill is still alive in the Senate, where it advanced from a committee Tuesday after lawmakers from both parties raised concerns, including whether hypothetical pancake breakfasts with constituents could create a problem.

“If it’s related to the campaign, that would not be considered a violation,” said that bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. John Bell.

Other senators raised concerns that the measure as drafted could be used to lodge frivolous ethics complaints that could be amplified by the news media.

The same Senate panel also defeated on Tuesday a measure from GOP Sen. David Suetterlein that would have tightened up certain pre-election donation reporting requirements and prohibited fundraising during special sessions.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Suetterlein, who said he wanted to prevent lawmakers from using a special session as leverage to raise money. He cited the 2020 case of a Democratic delegate who participated in a virtual floor session while hosting a fundraiser.