Money and Chaos in Virginia Politics

by James C. Sherlock

Having watched the flood of money into the 2017 and 2019 Virginia elections and the utter chaos in the 2020 General Assembly, I offer what I hope are two reform suggestions that meet with bipartisan approval.

Limit the money in state politics

I wrote an entire column on the abuses of unlimited campaign donations and their effects on healthcare policy in Virginia. Bacon’s Rebellion has been reporting on the system for years.

Campaign donations in unprecedented amounts in 2016-17 and 2018-19 directly affected our state elections first for constitutional officers and then for the General Assembly. An ocean of out-of-state money now threatens to tilt Virginians’ votes on a constitutional amendment for redistricting reform that was agreed upon by bipartisan majorities in the 2019 and 2020 General Assemblies under Republican and then Democratic leadership.

The $225 million raised by General Assembly candidates in the 2018-19 election cycle from special interests included but were not limited to:

  • Political $81.7 million;
  • Real Estate/Construction $19 million;
  • Single issue groups $16.4 million;
  • Retail/Services (includes electric and gas utilities) $14.2 million;
  • Health Care $12.3 million; and
  • Law $11.7 million

In the House elections in 2017 candidates spent $43 million. In the Senate elections in 2015 the candidates spent $37 million.  So, special interests alone in 2018 and 2019 gave nearly three times as much money as was spent in the immediately previous Virginia Senate and House elections.

The exponential growth of money in Virginia politics must stop. Many of the special interests don’t have a favorite party, just favorite legislative outcomes. Utilities and healthcare interests to name just two give virtually the same amount to Democrats and Republicans. At some level of campaign donations the relationships between lobbyists and some elected officials change. Requests become demands backed by threats.  Inputs become lobbyist-written bills.

Virginia is one of only 9 states to have no such limits.  The table below shows how the limits on Virginia’s campaign donation limits compare to the limits set by the four states nearest to Virginia in population.

I have never previously considered campaign finance limits a good idea, but as Steve Haner told me, “Freedom abused is lost.” God knows campaign donations are being abused in Virginia. We have to set limits here to restore the public’s faith that their interests are being represented properly and ethically.

I call on the Governor and General Assembly to pass an bill to limit donations when they come back in April or, alternately, for the Governor to call a special session. The legislation is not hard to write. It should not be hard to pass with everyone watching.

Change Legislative Deadlines

Changing the legislative calendar certainly is not as compelling a subject as campaign donation limits, but a useful step I think. I have been watching this for about four years and I think a change can make a difference.

The Division of Legislative Services (DLS) does the legal work in preparing legislation.

The chaos that was the 2020 General Assembly showed that the process of submitting and readying bills for an upcoming session is simply too late in the year.

  • Pre-filing began Nov. 18, 2019;
  • All requests for drafts of legislation had to be pre-filed to Legislative Services by COB December 5;
  • Those drafts were ready by midnight Dec. 30;
  • Requests for redrafts and corrections for legislation had to be prefiled to Legislative Services by COB Jan 4. Those were ready Jan. 7; and
  • Pre-filing ended at 10:00 AM on Jan 8, the first day of the session.

I don’t think it is radical to suggest that the pre-session calendar be moved 30 days earlier. That would get the process out of the holiday season and give both legislators and the public a chance to assess and comment on pending bills before they hit the House and Senate committee chambers. Perhaps the session can also proceed with somewhat less chaos.

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27 responses to “Money and Chaos in Virginia Politics”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Some cynics might say that all this hand-wringing began when the Dems started catching up to the GOP in money and that prior to that all the GOP money was characterized as “free speech”.

    Now that we are seeing a “flood” which is really just the newly added Dem money from folks like Bills (in state) and yes, out of state.

    NOW, we have a “problem”!

    I’ve always been on board with limiting money in politics – even when I was told over and over that it was guaranteed 1st amendment rights.

    I’m not convinced that there is a avalanche of support for limiting money… abortion and guns brings them to Richmond, not so much money in politics.

    Much, much worse than money in politics in my view is the laundering of money so that the real donors are not known, combined with really bad and late reporting so that the operatives know when they can bring a lot of money in at the last minute and it won’t get reported until later.

    If we had true 100% real-time transparency when we saw money coming in from Koch or Soros or those awful unions, etc – and to the individuals getting ready to vote – we’d have some serious potential accountability.

    The very first casualties would be some or most the movers and shakers in the GA.

    Any any rate, thank you Jim for the article and for advocating for change.

    1. 100% correct. Oh to go back a decade ago and see how many on this blog proclaimed, “Free Speech!” when the idea of campaign finance reform was introduced.

      People proclaimed, “But, but, but the Washington Post gets all the speech it wants, therefore, billionaires get to spend however they like.”

      Well, guess what? Billionaires and millionaires are now spending as they like.

      NOW we need to change the rules once the GOP starts losing…hmmmm.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        Go back a decade and see what I was writing. I’ve been lambasting our state government for this continually – in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Go further. Ban any bundling. Ban contributions from any non-human being. Ban contributions from persons outside the election district. For U.S. Senator, no donations from outside Virginia. For the 10th Congressional District, no donations from outside the district. For State Senate District 31 (my district), no donations outside the district.

    For outside expenditures, any communications between the spending entity and a candidate or his/her campaign constitutes coordination. Require, under penalty of perjury, an official of the spending entity to file an affidavit stating that there was no coordination or communications.

    Repeal the exception for media entities from the campaign finance laws. Put every corporation or other entity (labor unions, non-profits) on the same playing field with the same rules.

    And, of course, put in limits on contributions.

  3. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

    I don’t think any of this will ever happen. It would serve the interests of the people to limit the campaign dollars well. Even if this was limited it would have to be a comprehensive reform. The mice are always going to find a way into the corn crib.

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I viewed the process as tainted by money when I was in the midst of it in prior decades, and now the amounts are so large I view it as all but totally corrupted. Now we also have very biased “media” outlets funded by dark money, here in Virginia the Virginia Mercury operation. Still no idea who is paying the bills, and only their word that nobody is pulling the strings. But the new majority has changed nothing, added no new limits or reporting requirements. The corrupt practices will continue because they are a path to maintaining power, and that is all the political class cares about.

    I have a piece in tomorrow’s Post on this theme, and you can read it online now. I started to put something together for Bacon’s Rebellion, but would have to put the word “coronavirus” in the headline to get any attention…..

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: “the liberal media”.

      Well.. it Intersting. It’s NOT REALLY dark money donations but rather a business funded by someone and Conservatives would have the same opportunity to also fund media and actually do with FOX News, the Washington Examiner, Brietbart, and a host of others.

      No question Virginia Mercury is not a Conservative media but heckfire – what did you really expect?

      Geeze, blaming liberal media because Conservatives are too tight , cheap to do… their own Va media? Liberals just tend to be more generous when it comes to funding their causes.

      Surely there are some well-heeled Conservatives in Virginia who would fund “Virginia Right” or some such!

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        There is the evil party and the stupid party. I foolishly chose the stupid party. Has its best president ever, some would say!

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          re: best POTUS yet – must be – 99% of the GOP is loving him like no tomorrow!

          I sometimes wonder if things would have been different if a good number of GOP found their spines.

          Each new issue seems to cause “stiffening”… and now… I actually think I see some faint independence!

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Steve, modestly suggests that stupid party “Has its best president ever, some would say!”

        I disagree mildly, and suggest instead stupid party has “its best since Lincoln”.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Not so sure about accuracy of this this comment, Steve;

      “I started to put something together for Bacon’s Rebellion, but would have to put the word I started to put something together for Bacon’s Rebellion, but would have to put the word “coronavirus” in the headline to get any attention….. in the headline to get any attention…..”

      When I Google words bacon’ and then click the tab “news” in Google banner, I only get one “coronavirus” article in the first 30 articles listed by popularity.

  5. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    This relatively new observer in Virginia the ideas presented sound like they could make a difference. The money in politics everywhere is out of hand with Citizens United giving corporations leverage over legislation they didn’t have before so limits are even more important.

    The calendar date changes sound very reasonable. Can’t see why it would cause great discord and having the extra time for review would make what I see as too short sessions for the amount of bills considered.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      All the way back when I was R caucus director Delegate (later SCC judge) Clint Miller got a bill out of the House for a recess after bill introduction deadline, two weeks to let the bills percolate and be actually read. Failed in the Senate.

  6. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Keep in mind that Citizens United rejected a government attempt to prevent private money from funding a film about Hillary Clinton. Switch out Clinton and substitute Trump. Attacking or promoting someone or some issue (say global warming or the impact of illegal immigration on global warming) is free speech. And under the constitution, there is no difference between a nonprofit and a for-profit entity. Nor is there room for content-based decision-making.

    And I also have trouble that Jeff Bezos can spend as much as he wants promoting or attacking a candidate simply because he does it through the WaPo. In the age of electronic publishing, there is no reason to treat media companies different from any other organization.

    Where I have trouble with Citizens United is the assumption that there is no coordination between the outside entity and the candidate or issue group. In my view, attending a joint meeting, a phone conversation or an email constitutes coordination. You have a right to free speech not a right to skirt the campaign finance laws.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      You’re an attorney. Do you believe the US Supreme Court properly interpreted the US Constitution in the Citizens United decision?

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        I do believe Citizens United was decided correctly. The federal government had decided a private group of individuals could not spend money on an anti-Hillary Clinton movie. How can the federal or state government prohibit this?

        Where I think there is a problem is with explicit or tacit cooperation between those spending money “independently” and ongoing campaigns. For example, Michael Bloomberg’s announced plans to spend money to advance the election of Democratic candidates in the 2020 election is not independent in my mind. There is at least tacit cooperation as there is with many other “independent” entities across the political spectrum.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          TMT – “cooperation” and “coordination” is not evil especially if it’s above board. People ARE allowed to associate with each other and pursue some cause as a group.

          What ought not be NOT legal is for anyone to produce a movie that impugns someone with lies and conspiracy theories no matter whether left or right.

          I’m shocked that some of us think this is “free speech” and apparently that’s why we now have “fact checkers”. Further, those that are willing to believe these lies astounds me. Since when do we just accept lies and conspiracy theories as truth?

          1. “What ought not be NOT legal is for anyone to produce a movie that impugns someone with lies and conspiracy theories.

            That’s why we have libel laws.

          2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            No, Larry, coordination or cooperation between an outside entity and a campaign creates “either an in-kind contribution or, in some limited cases, a coordinated party expenditure by a party committee,” according to the FEC.

            I think the C0nduct Prong is too weak. I’d amend it to cover tacit cooperation/coordination.

            ” Since when do we just accept lies and conspiracy theories as truth?” Readers of the Washington Post do. The award-winning PowerLine blog regularly catches the Post’s reporters and columnists lying and suppressing the news.

            For example, this year I sent a Wapo local reporter whom I’ve know for more than a decade material about overweight trucks, the damage they cause and the bi-partisan effort that raised permit fees in 2012. The reporter thought this was great information and could be used in an article raising the issue of raising gas taxes but not overweight truck permit fees. The reporter sent the material to the transportation reporters. No story.

  7. LGABRIEL Avatar

    I do have a question about prefiling billd by Oct 18th. In odd number years, members of the House (and sometimes Senate) have not yet been elected. I think there is a problem with people not yet elccted to a session to be able to pre-file bills. What happens to those bills pre-filed by a member who loses election. Moving the entire session a couple of weeks later makes more sense, although that might require Constitutional changes.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      that’s an excellent question! Maybe Steve or Dick can answer it!

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Good article, Peter. Succinct and to the point!

      Seems to me that not knowing what the money – or gifts or in-kind are actually spent for – e.g. in the article: ” Nikki Sheridan , spokeswoman for the Virginia State Board of Elections, told The Post. “If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that.” ” leaves a giant black hole for the quo part of quid quo pro and indeed that was exactly the position of McDonnell AND the SCOTUS agreed!

      and VPAP says: ” It doesn’t fact-check, though, says Executive Director David Poole: “That’s never been our role.” ”

      Sometimes I think VPAP has become THE “go to” excuse of those who argue against stricter rules, i.e. ” why should we do that if we have VPAP?”

      VPAP is not enough. I’d actually like to hear VPAP say that and give some examples and that would take away the excuse that many might use.

    2. Nothing has changed in seven years.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Nothing has changed, and we still have a swiss cheese of so-called “finance laws” that actually deceive people into thinking we actually have something at all.

        After all, we have VPAP, right?

        As you and Steve have often made the point, money IS fungible and right now it flows like water around rocks – the “rocks” being asserted to be the “rules”.

        The only way to stop this is to make it illegal in any form – period.

        Failing that, every single transaction has to have an identified source and it has to be posted the day the money moves and it’s recipient – period.

        Other than that – this whole thing is a charade with various folks weighing in to “stop” the kind of money or political donors they don’t like but more than happy to let the other from those they do like to continue to flow unfettered.

        There are those who are actually serious about the issue and there are those who say they are but really are not.. they just want to affect those they disagree with politically.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” That’s why we have libel laws.”

    in theory. In truth, once the damage is done like affect voters.. how do you get remedy later?

    We’re overrun with conspiracy theories these days and we now have “fact checkers” and bots that spread lies and conspiracy theories at will – and the libel laws have not kept up with the way the internet now works. It was done back when we had print and broadcast media with known owners and publishers that could be held to account.

    No more.

    so relying on libel laws in a 24/7 online world does not work.

    You go after the folks who did it – if you can find them – and they have no assets – so then what? How do you “undo” an election that was affected by lies and conspiracy theories?

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” For example, this year I sent a Wapo local reporter whom I’ve know for more than a decade material about overweight trucks, the damage they cause and the bi-partisan effort that raised permit fees in 2012. The reporter thought this was great information and could be used in an article raising the issue of raising gas taxes but not overweight truck permit fees. The reporter sent the material to the transportation reporters. No story.”

    Jesus H. Keeeerist – TMT –

    LOTs of stories never get printed for a variety of reasons.

    It’s does NOT mean there is a conspiracy are effort to hide the truth!

    The truck thing you have repeated for years here.. where is the data?

    Does VDOT or other credible organization have the actual data – rather than someone or a paper saying so?

    If what you say is actually true, then why hasn’t VDOT asked the elected to deal with it?

    Just FYI – the roads that I see that ARE damaged by trucks are the rural roads that were built back in the 1930’s not modern interstates and primary roads but I’d sure be willing to read any credible report that says otherwise.

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