Virginia General Assembly adjourns with few changes to campaign-finance laws

Wednesday, March 21, 2001

When Republican leaders in the Virginia General Assembly needed to find a chairman for a Joint Subcommittee on Campaign Finance Reform, S. Chris Jones, a delegate from Suffolk, seemed like the perfect choice.

After all, Jones was a bit ahead of the curve in disclosing election expenditures. From the moment he began seeking a House seat in 1997, he e-filed his campaign reports to state officials.

Chairing this subcommittee was clearly a thankless task, as evidenced by some bitter debates during public hearings last fall and during the General Assembly this winter.

But the young Republican said he embraced the challenge and guided the committee so it was able to present three bills designed to improve disclosure of candidates’ fundraising efforts and spending habits.

By the session’s end, the Senate had killed every campaign-related bill except one of the disclosure bills. Even that one had been stripped to the point that it essentially allowed election officials only to check candidates’ math on their campaign reports.

“Overall, I would have liked to see all of the bills reach the governor,” Jones said. “But we live to fight another day.”

Virginia’s campaign-finance debate, in a way, prefaced this week’s effort in Congress to change the way the country funds its elections. But the Virginia measures took a decidedly different approach toward electoral spending than does the current debate before Congress: Rather than focus on contributions and soft money, most of the Virginia bills examined disclosure methods.

One bill would have authorized the State Board of Elections to conduct audits to assure that campaign-contribution and expenditure reports “add up.” If passed in its original form, the bill would have required candidates to maintain detailed records and receipts on all expenditures exceeding $5,000.

A second bill would have required candidates to provide more details about large contributors and large expenditures. The bill also would allow the State Board of Elections to call campaign treasurers for clarification of reports.

Another bill would have mandated electronic filings for all candidates by 2003. Candidates also would be required to report exceptionally large contributions and expenditures within 24 hours.

Only one of those bills — the measure that would allow state election officials to check the veracity of candidate disclosure reports — cleared both chambers. That was the bill that was stripped to allow officials only to check the math on the reports.

Perhaps the most involved debate surfaced around a fourth bill, popularly known as the “Stand by Your Ad” bill, which would have required sponsors of political ads to identify themselves. Bill sponsor Del. James M. Scott, D-Fairfax, said the measure was crafted with fairness in mind, letting the targets of such ads know who was taking shots at them.

The measure cleared the House three times, succumbing each time to votes in Senate committees.
Some observers had difficulties with Scott’s bill, saying it would upset a long-held tradition of anonymous political speech. They noted that the U.S. Supreme Court, in McIntyre v. Ohio, held that election officials couldn’t punish people for distributing leaflets anonymously.

But Scott said his bill was modeled after a North Carolina law that had survived several legal challenges.
“I don’t think the constitutional arguments are anything but a red herring,” said Scott, who plans to introduce the bill again next year.

But Sen. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, says he fears that such bills would force candidates to spend their money in other venues, perhaps less desirable ones, in an effort to avoid disclosure. While he says he doesn’t like anonymous ads, he feels that Virginia citizens have a right to air their opinions without revealing their identities.

“I think that’s a small price tag we pay for freedom,” he said.

As for the other disclosure bills, Forbes said they had been watered down to the point that they had little effect.

Jones agreed that his bills suffered greatly from numerous amendments. He said the Joint Subcommittee on Campaign Finance Reform would meet in the coming months to revise the measures to try for successful passage next year.

“We’ll be back next year and try to chip at it a little more,” Jones said.

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