Home Virginia Politics VA State Senate Moves in Wildly Wrong Direction on Campaign Finance

VA State Senate Moves in Wildly Wrong Direction on Campaign Finance


Just a day after the Washington Post reported the Koch brothers’ plan for billionaires to buy our democracy, this vote today in Virginia’s State Senate – killing our state’s utterly pathetic, measly incentives for small donations to political campaigns without replacing it with anything – is so opposite of the direction we need to be going, it’s breathtaking. Now, clearly, the current tax credit for political donations is completely pathetic, inadequate, etc. But that doesn’t mean we should KILL it, for god’s sake; it means we should massively STRENGTHEN it.  As this study on Matching Political Contributions explains, for instance:

The way forward requires an overhaul of public financing that spurs greater participation by the public at large.

Specifically, the answer lies in a system that gives a multiple match to donor contributions. Rather than continuing to give each candidate a flat grant of $100,000, for example, public financing systems should give six-to-one multiple matching funds on the first $200 of a contribution. This would make a $200 contribution worth $1400 to a candidate.

Multiple matching funds reflect a philosophical shift about the role of money in politics. Money is not an “evil,” but should be embraced as a tool to make government accountable to more people. Public financing should not “level the playing field” among candidates, but should reward candidates who mobilize more supporters. Reformers need to spend less energy on “getting big money out of campaigns” and more on “getting the people back in” to those very same campaigns.

Multiple matching funds address the core challenge to financial political participation-a lack of income. Financial constraints determine who gives money. Individuals with family incomes over $100,000 represented 11.1% of the population in 2004, cast 14.9% of the votes, and were responsible for approximately 80% of political contributions over $200

… multiple matching programs make candidates more willing to engage more Americans and expand participation. For example, while candidates in California (which lacks multiple matching funds) collect only 5% of their money from contributors who give $250 or less, candidates in New York City (the only American jurisdiction with six-to-one multiple matching funds) collect over half of

their money from contributors who give $250 or less
…multiple matching funds facilitate the majority’s maxim in Citizens United v. FEC that

money is a form of speech and therefore an important tool to “hold officials accountable to the people.” Those who insist that private money alone should finance politics elevate their mechanical aversion to government over a commitment to expand liberty

…Public financing should no longer aim to purge private money from politics, but should instead encourage as many citizens as possible to participate in financing politics. Federal, state, and local lawmakers should transform their approach to public financing by adopting multiple matching of contributions. Multiple matching funds increase citizen participation, reduce the potential for corruption, and comply with the

Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence.

Now, I can hear the main objection already: where would we get the money to pay for this? On that question, I refer everyone to the Brennan Center for Justice (“a nonpartisan law and policy institute that seeks to improve our systems of democracy and justice”), which writes in the context of New York State’s campaign finance reform debate:

Defenders of the status quo who benefit from Albany’s “show me the money” culture of corruption have made exaggerated and dishonest claims about the costs of the small donor matching system at the core of comprehensive campaign finance reform. Here are the facts.

A small donor matching system of public financing would cost between $26 and $41 million per year – that’s about $2 per New Yorker. This estimate comes from the Campaign Finance Institute, a national, non-partisan research organization, which used peer-reviewed methods….A cost of $41 million is only 0.03% of the state budget, and funding from sources other than the general fund is available…A healthy democracy, one that gives ordinary New Yorkers the ability to have their voices heard in Albany, is worth spending money on – and can even save money in the long run.

Here in Virginia, sources for that kind of money are theoretically simple to find. We can start by bringing back the estate tax, which costs us around $140 MILLION a year to benefit a few super-rich families. Or, we can ditch some of the absurd, expensive “tax expenditures” in our budget, such as identified in this 2009 Commonwealth Institute report. According to that report, we’re talking about “more than 60 tax expenditure programs that have been created or amended in recent years” that “cost Virginia at least $2.5 billion a year.” Just to emphasize, that’s BILLION with a “b.” The point is, almost any one of these tax expenditures (e.g., the coal tax credit at a cost of more than $40 million a year) could easily pay for a robust system aimed at encouraging small political donations in Virginia, with the ultimate vision of moving towards a system of public financing of elections. Instead, what the Virginia Senate did earlier today was to eliminate a tiny, uttelry inadequate kernel of something that COULD have grown into something much larger and better, without replacing it with anything at all. Of course, Dominion and other large corporations will continue to be allowed to buy our legislature and state regulatory agencies with impunity. Starting to get an idea of where our “representatives'” priorities lie?  Hint: not with us!

P.S. The “argument” I’ve seen made that saving this whopping $700,000 (not even a rounding error of a rounding error of a rounding error in our state’s budget) is the main reason for getting rid of the campaign finance tax credit is not even laughable, it’s insulting to our intelligence. How stupid do these people think we are, anyway? Grrrrrrrr.


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