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If This is “Usual and Customary,” the Virginia General Assembly Has BIG Problems!

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The House floor “wasted time” today talking about campaign finance reform, according to Delegate Tim Hugo (R).

In Virginia, we have a dirty little problem. It’s that we have some of the most lax campaign finance rules in the country. In fact, the Center for Public Integrity gave Virginia an F grade for political financing. Basically, there are almost no rules or restrictions on how much is raised, from whom, or what it’s spent on. The only rule is that everything has to be disclosed. So that if someone is motivated enough to go look, and they dig around enough, they can find this information out.

And the public is starting to really pay attention. I personally canvassed all over the state last year, and resoundingly heard from voters at their doors that they didn’t trust the government, didn’t think it really mattered who they voted for, since they were just going to listen to big corporations. This is a national problem in fact. According to the American National Election Studies, 75% of Americans believe that “government is run not for the benefit of all, but for the benefit of a few big interests.” This is an all-time high.

There are many ideas for how to solve these problems. Campaign contribution limits like at the federal level, laws against accepting donations from certain regulated industries, bans on personal use of campaign funds, public financing of elections. HB263, from Delegate Marcus Simon (D), is one more idea. It’s pretty radical–a voluntary Democracy Voucher program, giving every registered voter $100 in vouchers to “spend” by donating to any candidate who chooses to participate in the program. Candidates who wish to participate must comply with certain spending limits and contribution limits, focusing on small donors. It’s been adopted in lefty Seattle, to much success.

Delegate Simon stood up on the House floor today to talk about this bill, speaking passionately about the money coming in from “the interests we’re here to regulate.” Simon said that although the Democracy Voucher program sounds kind of “wacky,” so does the way we approach campaign finance right now.

“We divide ourselves up into committees, and then we regulate industries like the tobacco industry, the beer and wine industry, the medical industry…and then, we let them finance our campaigns. We say to all the people that we’re going to regulate: you guys will fund our campaign coffers, and you’ll help elect the folks that you want, and then we’ll come to Richmond on the backs of your campaign contributions, and we’ll regulate you….It causes folks to wonder who we’re working for. We want to have a system of campaign finance that people can believe in, that people can have some faith in.”

Is Virginia ready for such a radical approach to campaign finance reform– who knows? How do we find out? Normally, a legislator files a bill, then it goes to a subcommittee for discussion. Experts and witnesses testify, concerns are raised by other Delegates who’ve read lots of elections and campaign finance bills. Amendments are suggested, and perhaps Delegate Simon is told that it’s an interesting idea, but that it’s not ready, and it’s passed by indefinitely, for him to work on it more and come back another year. Or maybe the subcommittee sends it over to the Appropriations committee to have some discussion about what it might cost and where to find funds to pay for it.

But none of that happened here.

As you can see in the video, House Democratic Leader Del. David Toscano pointed out (under the undoubtedly highly-scripted guise of asking Delegate Simon a question) exactly what happened instead. “Before this bill was reported out here to the floor, was there any discussion whatsoever of the bill, its merits, its costs?”

The answer, of course, is no. Because instead of the bill being sent to the Privileges and Elections committee, where campaign finance bills typically go, or to Appropriations to figure out where the funds would come from, it was sent to the Rules Committee, which Speaker Kirk Cox (R) – as we all know by now – stacked with a non-proportional number of Republicans, despite the House having voted in a rule of proportional committee representation.

Delegate Toscano then dripped with hilarious sarcasm as he moved to follow the “usual and customary practice of this body” and refer a bill with this size fiscal impact to the Appropriations Committee. The motion was of course rejected along party lines.

After this, there was more back and forth about the actual merits of the bill–conversations which were perfectly reasonable and appropriate to have, they just should have been had in a subcommittee hearing, not on the full floor. But that wouldn’t have given Delegate Nick Freitas (R) the opportunity to spend more time on the House floor to create sound bites for his (almost certainly doomed) U.S. Senate campaign, by teasing that perhaps Senator Tim Kaine should agree to participate in Democracy Vouchers. There was discussion about the costs, and whether it’s right for taxpayers to be forced to pay for everyone to participate in democracy, whether a system that works better, that has integrity is one of those types things that we would be willing to pay for as taxpayers. After all, taxation isn’t voluntary, and we pay for, among other things, the legislators’ salaries and expense accounts.

Finally, Delegate Tim Hugo (R) complained that the body had a lot of important things to discuss, and that they shouldn’t be wasting their time on the floor today discussing this idea. And that’s exactly the point–that’s precisely why there are committees and subcommittees, so that the entire 100-member body doesn’t have to “waste time” hearing all 2,975 bills that were filed this year. When Speaker Cox decided to assign HB263 to the Rules Committee, and then called to move it to the floor without discussion, it was his choice to waste the body’s time. And why did Cox do that? Well, obviously, to play more partisan games. So when the public doesn’t think their government is working in their interest, doesn’t think the government is capable of accomplishing anything productive, this kind of nonsense is precisely why.

Oh, naturally HB263 didn’t pass. In fact, Delegate Toscano urged his own party to vote against advancing it–to get them out of the awkward position of their constituents possibly thinking that they don’t support campaign finance reform. Because no one ever meant for this to glide straight from filing to the House floor without any discussion or suggestions or amendments. It was meant to be the beginning of a conversation–an important one if we’re ever going to establish trust in our elected officials.