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Bill by Sen. Chap Petersen Would Move Virginia in the Exact Opposite Direction of Where We Should Be Going on Campaign Finance


Virginia State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) has introduced a bill which would “[repeal] the personal income tax credit for contributions to political candidates.” That is the exact wrong direction Virginia should be going in terms of campaign finance.

As a Democratic member of the General Assembly told me yesterday, the whole concept of allowing a tax credit for political contributions was “to encourage SMALL donors.” Instead of eliminating it, we should be increasing it, potentially by a lot (e.g., a 5:1 or even 10:1 match by the state), to increase the incentives for candidates to seek out SMALL donations, while decreasing (at least relatively speaking) their incentives to spend all their time chasing after rich donors and big corporate money from Dominion, etc.

How this could work is well explained in this paper by elections law expert and GW Law Professor Spencer Overton, who among other things “served as counsel to the NAACP Legal Redress Committee,” “served on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Commission on Presidential Nomination Scheduling and Timing,” and ” served as on the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform at the American University Center for Democracy and Election Management.” In short, the guy knows what he’s talking about when he writes:

Conventional reformers and press accounts suggest that “there is too much money in politics” — but they are wrong. The real problem is that the money comes from too few people. While 64% of eligible Americans voted in the November 2008 election, only 10% typically give to political campaigns, and less than 0.5% are responsible for the bulk of the money that politicians collect from individual contributors…

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.

Exactly! Which is why I’d love to see someone put in a bill that would do what Professor Overton is talking about — massively expanding Virginia’s current, inadequate system for incentivizing small-dollar donations — rather than what Sen. Petersen’s bill would do, which would be to smother the tiny seed of that idea before it’s allowed to germinate. Yes, it would cost the state money, but that would be well worth it (note: we  could pay for it by bringing back the estate tax, or increasing taxes a tiny bit on the richest corporations; what a concept, I know!), at least if you care about the ability of our democracy to not be uttelry bought and paid for by the rich and powerful, both individuals and corporations.

Here in Virginia, sad to say, the state legislature and even regulatory bodies like the State Corporation Commission are largely “captured” by big money interests, lobbyists, etc. Getting away from the deplorable situation will take a multifaceted approach, one in which campaign finance reform is only one component, albeit an important one. Having said that, the last thing we want to do is to move backwards, further away from the goal of returning power to the ordinary people, not just the rich and powerful.