Virginia panel wraps up campaign-finance meetings with call for disclosure

Thursday, December 21, 2000

A Virginia legislative subcommittee recently wrapped up more than
three months of campaign-finance discussions by coming to only one final
agreement — state lawmakers must improve campaign-disclosure laws.

Other than that, the members discussed and disagreed on just about
everything else, including limiting campaign contributions, crafting a
public-financing system for state elections and placing restrictions on
corporations and the press.

“We didn’t get started until September,” said Del. S. Chris
Jones, R-Suffolk and chairman of the subcommittee. “We only had so much time
to deal with these issues. But we did some common-sense things such as
increasing fines for noncompliance.”

After four public meetings — the last on Dec. 11 — Jones said the
Joint Subcommittee on Campaign Finance Reform agreed on disclosure issues that
will result in three bills to be introduced in the Virginia General Assembly
next month. All address disclosure of election reports and bolster fines for

Jones said the first bill would authorize the State Board of Elections
to conduct audits to ensure that campaign-contribution and expenditure reports
“add up.” He said the state has a history of candidates turning in
incomplete and incorrect reports. The bill, if passed, would also require
candidates to maintain detailed records and receipts on all expenditures
exceeding $5,000.

A second bill would require candidates to provide more details about
large contributors and large expenditures.

“They can’t just write down citizen,” Jones said in a telephone interview.
“They have to write down the person’s occupation. And they can’t just
list expenditure. They have to
explain what it was.”

The bill also would allow the State Board of Elections to call
campaign treasurers for clarification of reports.

The third and final bill would mandate electronic filings for all
candidates by 2003. Candidates, too, would be required to file exceptionally
large contributions and expenditures within 24 hours.

The committee convened after an agreement among state lawmakers to
seek ways to improve elections. The 11-member subcommittee included three
citizens, three state senators and five state delegates.

The subcommittee’s first two meetings last fall generated
considerable debate among its members.

Louis Brooks Jr., a citizen member from Prince William County,
suggested the state create a Web site to post the names of campaign-law
violators. He said shaming the candidates could be more effective than fining

Others suggested restricting corporations — particularly those
outside the state — from participating in the election process.

Del. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, suggested taking newspaper and
television coverage to the curb. Spruill said editorial endorsements put those
candidates who don’t earn such support at an unfair advantage.

“Be sure to put something in there to check the press out, too,”
he said in the hearing. “They are biased.”

Some said the state should start limiting contributions. Presently,
Virginia is one of about a dozen states that do not limit individual
contributions to campaigns. The state also doesn’t restrict the amount an
individual may spend on his or her own campaign.

“Personally, I am opposed to contribution limits,” Jones said.
“I feel like disclosure is the way to go because we can know immediately who
gives what to whom.”

But Jones said the debate isn’t over. After the General Assembly’s
two-month session ends, the subcommittee will likely reconvene to discuss
campaign-contribution limits and public financing.

“Campaign finance is more complicated than it appears,” Jones
said. “But we think we made some progress.”

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