Interesting to see Governor Ralph Northam channeling Claude Rains Monday, choosing the first day of the annual two-day General Assembly campaign finance feeding frenzy to highlight his support for a series of campaign finance proposals.
Campaign fundraising by state legislators and their pooled caucus accounts goes dark with the opening of the regular session today. The days leading up to the deadline are filled with final receptions, dinners and endless email appeals, a fundraising push similar to the final stage before election day.
“This is the LAST DAY that I can accept any donations until the legislative session ends. There are only hours left before the deadline. Click the Donate button to rush $1 right now, before time runs out,” read a recent email from Democratic Delegate David Toscano.
“We have an emergency ask of you. By law we must shut down our fundraising TOMORROW at NOON,” is the message from the House Republican Caucus (taking the position that the prohibition doesn’t start until the gavel falls at noon.)
If the schedule followed past years, Senate Democrats had a caucus breakfast event, then the Democratic legislators in both chambers did a joint evening event last night. On the Republican side the Senate Caucus did a lunch yesterday and House Speaker Kirk Cox held his annual start-of-session bash last night. Both GOP events have been at the Jefferson and I assume still were. In between the big parties, small events for individual legislators fill restaurants and lobbyist offices around town.
Amid this environment, when lobbyists are passing out money as fast as their accounting department can process it, the Governor announces his package of ethics proposals, none of which he will abide by unless or until they pass. Got it. No leading by example here.
One proposal (see the bill here) would place a campaign contribution limit of $10,000 per donor per candidate per campaign cycle. That amount is way too high and may function to force up the amounts of money now being given. A more reasonable limit would be $2,500 per cycle for a member of the House of Delegates, and $5,000 for a member or candidate for the State Senate, with perhaps $10,000 the limit for a statewide candidate, state party or a political caucus.
The bill appears to be silent on so-called leadership political action committees – can they get another $10,000 along with the donation to the candidate account?
Placing such a cap on state parties, statewide candidates, etc. (who often get the biggest checks) might have the unintended (or fully intended) consequence of forcing the lobbyists to reshape their budgets, moving more money into direct legislative contributions. But only a cynic like me would think of that, I’m sure.
The bill on individual contributions imposes the limit per person, so a husband and wife could each give $10,000, as could any other family member above the age of majority. At ten grand a pop, bundling becomes a very powerful tactic.
And there is this: “D. The limits set forth in this section shall not apply to contributions by (i) the candidate to his own campaign; (ii) the candidate’s spouse, child, parent, or sibling to his campaign; and (iii) a political party committee to the candidate.” The advantage of personal and family wealth shall not be diminished.
Even in our current environment, $10,000 is serious money, far larger than the typical donation from the typical PAC. A bundle of $10,000 contributions gets us back where we started. That’s not a cap. Try again.
The Governor also rolled out the Usual Leftist Shibboleth about prohibiting corporate and other business contributions, apparently leaving the door open for the kinds of employee-funded political action committees which companies use for federal candidates. If the federal system’s reporting and restrictions are being imposed on business interests, be sure the same rules apply to the labor unions and issue activist groups who delight in making life miserable for those business interests.
“The proposal to ban direct corporate and business contributions to campaigns will be sponsored by Delegate Elizabeth Guzman. To ensure enforcement, the bill also bans corporations and businesses from making direct contributions to their own political action committees. Contributions from individuals would be unaffected by this legislation,” reads the Governor’s news release from January 7. Guzman’s bill is here and I see no restrictions on labor unions or activist groups. The level playing field seems elusive.
Meanwhile, Monday, Tuesday and perhaps up till the middle of the day today, the checks change hands, the issue conversations with no reporters or voters in the room fill the hours. Just how much money was donated, by whom, on what issues, will all have to be sorted out later. At noon today, the legislators become ethical; it is only later that they become transparent.
Donations of $10,000 or more to non-candidate accounts (such as the caucuses) must be reported rapidly. Donations made by the end of 2018 are reported January 15. But donations made after December 31 but before the session are not reported until post session. A real reform would be for all concerned to voluntarily report in full by Friday every single dollar and every single donor.
In the bad old days, well the even-worse old days, the fundraising receptions for the caucuses were conducted during session. We carefully scheduled the parties to happen before the crossover deadline, when every bill must be acted on in the chamber where it originates. Until the General Assembly starts to vote, the lobbyist must continue to wonder – will this money (or lack of it) matter? At crossover much of suspense disappears.
Imposing the ban, moving the dates of the fundraisers from early February back to early January, really didn’t change a thing expect optics. Hope springs eternal in every lobbyist’s soul until the subcommittees start the killing.
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