A Republican-led Virginia House panel voted down legislation early Feb. 1 that would prohibit lawmakers from using campaign funds for personal expenses such as a vacation, mortgage or country club membership.
Virginia’s elected officials are currently outliers in the nation for their ability to spend money donated to their campaigns on virtually anything. Despite a bipartisan insistence that lawmakers want to find compromise on a reform, similar bills adding limits to how campaign funds can be spent have been repeatedly defeated in recent years, including last year in the same subcommittee.
The panel voted down personal use ban bills from a Democratic and Republican delegate. Similar legislation is still alive in the Senate, but Wednesday’s vote signals it is likely to meet a similar fate should it cross to the House.
Currently, lawmakers are currently only barred from converting campaign funds to personal use once they close out their accounts. A previous 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.
Opponents of the change argue that Virginia’s transparency-based system of campaign finance reporting discourages abuses.
“You can see everything that comes in and everything that goes out. It’s all transparent,” said Republican Del. Rob Bloxom.
Democratic Del. Marcus Simon, the sponsor of one of the bills and a longtime advocate for the reform, responded that the degree of clarity an entry in the campaign finance disclosure system actually provides is up to the candidate.
“For instance, you could put $50, Amazon, right? Because you put $50 on your credit card, and it was paid to Amazon. … And that satisfies our reporting requirements in Virginia,” Simon said.
Republican Del. Wren Williams made the initial motion to defeat the bills from Simon and GOP Del. Mike Cherry. They were voted down together on a 5-3 party-line vote.
“I would suggest that donors need to not donate to the people they don’t trust. And I’d also suggest they don’t vote for them,” Williams said.
Simon said in an interview after the hearing that it was “curious” that the House subcommittee had not taken action on the bill until it was clear whether the Senate version was advancing. In past years, he noted that personal use bans have passed the House unanimously only to die in the Senate.
“It’s hard to get folks to regulate themselves and to create new crimes that they’d potentially be impacted by,” he said.