RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Virginia Senate committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would prohibit lawmakers from using campaign funds for personal expenses like a mortgage or country club membership — a change lawmakers have long resisted adopting.
Applause broke out in the room after the bill from Sen. Jennifer Boysko and three Democratic colleagues passed unanimously.
Virginia state lawmakers 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.
“Nearly all other states and the federal government prohibit the use of campaign funds by a candidate or their families,” Boysko said as she presented her bill. “But in Virginia, we still could take our family on a Caribbean cruise if we choose, and I don’t think that’s right.”
The bill would prohibit a candidate from using campaign funds for an expense that would exist irrespective of the person seeking, holding or maintaining office. It allows contributions to be used for “ordinary and accepted expenses related to campaigning for or holding elective office.”
The bill was amended Tuesday to permit campaign funds to be used for dependent care expenses, broadening an initial allowance for child care expenses. It spells out specific expenses that campaign funds can't cover, including: a home mortgage, rent or utility payment; a non-campaign related automobile expense; a country club membership; a vacation; a tuition payment; and admission to certain entertainment events not associated with a campaign.
Regarding enforcement, the bill said complaints would be taken by the Department of Elections and investigated by the State Board of Elections.
The bill said that if the State Board determines that a candidate “willfully and knowingly violated” the provisions of the bill, the board “shall” direct them to repay the amount “unlawfully converted to his personal use.”
Under the bill, the board may also assess a civil penalty, not to exceed $1,000 per itemized expenditure found to be in violation and no greater than $10,000.
Currently, lawmakers are currently only barred from using campaign funds for personal use once they close out their accounts.
An 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.
About a half-dozen speakers advocated for the bill's passage Tuesday.
“We just think this is the lowest hanging fruit, so please pass this bill. Then you won’t have to hear it next year,” said Nancy Morgan, a member of a grassroots group that advocates for campaign finance reform.
No one spoke against it. Lawmakers in previous hearings have raised concerns that a ban could lead to frivolous, politically motivated complaints.
The bill must clear the full Senate before it can head to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. Lawmakers in that chamber have filed similar bills that haven't been heard yet.
The same Senate panel also advanced a bill Tuesday that would prohibit lawmakers from fundraising during special sessions. Currently, fundraising is only prohibited during the General Assembly's relatively short regular session.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. David Suetterlein, said he doesn't think lawmakers should be able to raise money at the same time they are voting on legislation. That perspective was echoed by advocates who testified that doing so could create a conflict of interest.
The measure advanced on a 12-2 vote. Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell and Republican Sen. Bryce Reeves, who raised concerns that it could disadvantage incumbents facing challengers, opposed it. GOP Sen. Jill Vogel abstained.