The Virginia General Assembly ended the 2023 legislative session on Saturday having passed only one campaign finance bill to the dismay of activists who say the state’s election laws need desperate reform.
Virginia’s laws governing political spending are among the least restrictive in the country, with virtually no limits on the amount of money candidates can accept from donors. The state is also one of five that allow private companies to make direct political donations, while other state and federal regulations restrict corporate giving to PACs.
Under this system, total state-level fundraising in legislative races across Virginia more than tripled over the last two decades, from $38.9 million in 1999 to nearly $134.8 million in 2019, when adjusted for inflation, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of campaign finance reports. These figures don’t include millions more in outside spending by political groups that seek to influence the outcome of state elections.
The advocacy group BigMoneyOutVA backed 13 bills in the Virginia legislature that would have imposed limits on political donations, expanded disclosure requirements and set clear restrictions on the use of campaign funds, among other transparency reforms.
Four bills eventually cleared the senate, three with near-unanimous support. But only one survived the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.
That bill, if signed into law, would expand disclosure laws by creating new filing deadlines and require PACs to report large donations more frequently. The bill was spurred in part by state elections in 2021, when Virginia’s largest publicly-regulated utility company quietly helped fund a political group that sought to suppress Republican turnout by running ads questioning then-gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s (R) support of gun rights.
State Sen. David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke), who introduced the measure, told OpenSecrets the bill would increase transparency in the final weeks of a primary or general election when such maneuvers can be especially effective at changing the outcome of a race.
A GOP-led Virginia House panel blocked the bill, but Suetterlein said Youngkin and other Republican leaders intervened to get the measure before the entire House Privileges and Elections Committee, where it passed 21-1. It was later voted out of the House unanimously.
Nancy Morgan, a coordinator for BigMoneyOutVA, said Suetterlein’s bill was a “good stepping stone.” But she expressed frustration over the Virginia House’s refusal to pass what she says are common sense reform. She told OpenSecrets advocates hoped that the House would give serious consideration to the bipartisan senate bills.
“We were very disappointed,” Morgan said.
House again defeats ban on personal use of campaign funds
Among the bills advocates hoped would pass the Virginia General Assembly was a measure to prohibit state legislators from spending political donations on personal expenses. State law currently forbids lawmakers from using campaign funds to cover non-campaign expenses only after the accounts are closed.
An Associated Press investigation of the state’s campaign finance records in 2016 found some Virginia lawmakers exploited this loophole to pay for business club memberships, expensive hotel stays and dinners at high-end restaurants with money from their campaigns. The investigation noted that Virginia is the only state that allows candidates to raise unlimited funds and spend that money on personal expenses.
State Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) sponsored a measure that would have placed federal-style restrictions on the use of campaign funds, preventing state politicians from using political donations to cover any expense that would exist irrespective of their duties as a candidate or elected official. It passed the senate 38-0 but died by a partisan 5-3 vote in the same House subcommittee that initially blocked Suetterlein’s disclosure bill.
“I found it a little bit shocking honestly,” Boysko said of the subcommittee’s decision. “We need to have guardrails. I shouldn’t be able to use my campaign account as a piggy bank for myself.”
A poll commissioned by BigMoneyOutVA found that 73% of Virginians support banning candidates from using their campaign funds for personal use. Despite this, the General Assembly has shot down proposals to prohibit the personal use of campaign funds every year since 2014.
Boysko told OpenSecrets that the bill was narrowly tailored to address lawmakers’ prior concerns that the new restrictions could be used to unfairly malign political opponents. She also noted that the bill came out of a 2021 bipartisan joint subcommittee formed to study campaign finance reform in Virginia.
Committee members who opposed similar House proposals suggested that existing disclosure requirements allow voters to judge for themselves a candidate’s use of campaign funds.
Boysko disagreed, noting that vague language in disclosure reports often make it difficult to assess the nature of a campaign expense. She also argued that the current law lacks a system with which to hold candidates responsible for misusing political donations, which, in turn, erodes public trust in government officials.
“I think we need to hold ourselves accountable, so that people have confidence in us,” she said.
Top donor identification and mandatory electronic filing
The GOP-led Virginia House subcommittee also voted down a proposal by state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) that would have required independent political groups to identify their top three donors on campaign ads and extended disclosure requirements to ballot committees.
The bill passed the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate along a partisan vote. Some Republican lawmakers warned that the measure could have a “chilling effect” on top donors who may not want their names appearing in ads. They also said that the disclosure requirements may be unwieldy, with the donors’ names taking up valuable real estate on political messages.
Favola, in response, said that the public interest outweighs any inconvenience the new requirements create.
“This is trying to get to the groups that hide behind the Citizens United decision,” she said, referencing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that paved the way for political groups to spend unlimited sums to support or oppose political candidates. “I, for one, would like to know who’s funding my opponent, right? And I think voters would like to know as well.”
The Virginia House subcommittee also blocked a bill from state Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-Prince Williams) that would have mandated local candidates in the state to file campaign finance reports electronically. While the bill included an exemption for candidates who lack internet access, some members said the requirements could still present a barrier.
Donation limits stuck in committee
The remaining nine reforms introduced this session died in committee.
The Virginia House Privileges and Elections subcommittee that reviewed campaign finance reforms rejected five bills from its own members. Most, but not all, were voted down by 5-3 partisan vote. Democratic and Republican members unanimously rejected a proposal by Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach) to prohibit “foreign-influenced” corporations from spending on state elections, which they argued would unduly burden corporate donors regardless of ownership.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Senate Privileges and Elections Committee rejected a pair of bills that would have limited the amount of money state candidates can accept from a single donor and barred publicly-regulated utility companies from making political donations to state politicians. Reform skeptics argued that such restrictions on fundraising would encourage donors to divert money from candidates to outside spending groups, potentially making it more difficult to track political spending.
Virginia’s largest utility companies also opposed a ban on public utilities’ political giving, saying it unfairly singled out a specific industry.
Another bill carried by Suetterlein would have prohibited candidates from raising money whenever the Virginia General Assembly is scheduled to meet, including during special sessions. Current law forbids fundraising only during the regular legislative session. It made it to the Virginia Senate floor only to be sent back to committee for further review after the committee had concluded its work for the year.
Making reform a campaign issue
Whether Boysko, Favola and McPike reintroduce their reforms next year is likely to depend on the makeup of the state legislature, they said. All 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly are on the ballot this election season, the first since a court-supervised commission redrew legislative districts in 2021.
Boysko said she’s had to introduce some pieces of legislation several times before it gets passed.
“Persistence pays off,” she said. “I know that there are lots of my colleagues who also are passionate about this.”
In the meantime, Morgan told OpenSecrets advocates are working to make campaign finance reform an election issue. BigMoneyOutVA is pressing candidates to pledge support for reforms limiting the influence of money in politics, including an amendment to the U.S. constitution that would grant states more freedom to regulate political spending.
Ten candidates running for state office in Virginia have already signed on.