by Angela Lynn
It is no secret Virginia has some of the worst campaign finance issues in the nation,
with dark money pouring in from outside interest groups, untimely/undisclosed
financial reports, etc. There are complaints coming in from all sides that our election results are determined by outside influences and a minority of big donors. We have the power to fix this, but apparently little/no desire from incumbent politicians or the candidates who benefit from these influencers.
Currently, state election laws require candidates to comply with financial disclosures, with anyone who “anticipates receiving contributions and/or spending funds in excess of $200 for the purpose of influencing the outcome of any non-federal election in Virginia [required to] register as a political committee with the Virginia Department of Elections.” If they spend more than $1,000 helping a campaign, they need to file an independent election report, but they are not always diligent in doing so. Candidates themselves need a financial officer to keep up with election filings and reports or face fines.
Meanwhile, campaigns have become increasingly expensive, with the need to employ fundraising teams and finance people while competing with large drops from outside sources to determine the outcome of our elections. Candidates who challenge incumbents are often on short leashes when it comes to financial support, because they are not going to be able to compete with incumbent money or a candidate who has their thumb on the scale with inside party support or outside groups that have a vested interest in our election results. Also, trying to keep up with election disclosures can drain challenger accounts, with penalties leveraged on the campaigns that have the least experience. Many new candidates rely on volunteers to help with financial reports, and end up with mistakes that cost them.
So what happens when an incumbent like Delegate Kathy Bryon receives tax breaks from
her Florida home, based on her claim of primary residence in Florida, even though she has been holding office in Virginia for over two decades (and actually serves as VA House GOP *Caucus Chair*)?
Public records in Florida show that this week, a home owned by Virginia Del. Kathy Byron and her husband received a tax break designated for a person’s primary residence.
Byron has been in office since 1998. Her district covers parts of Lynchburg and the counties of Bedford, Franklin, and Campbell. She and her husband also own a home near Tampa, in Hillsboro County, Florida.
This seems absurd and wrong, but in Virginia’s “wild wild west” campaign finance system, how much of Byron’s campaign finance disclosures were made in – and rely on – “good faith” reporting systems? And will there be any consequences for what Byron reportedly did? We’ll see, but the fact is, we have a very flawed reporting system in Virginia election laws and it seems to be getting shadier.
In general, Virginia elections are far too much in the hands of the super wealthy, big corporations, etc. The Brennan Center for Justice states that the election finance system is broken, and the solution is “small donor public financing to put power back in the hands of individuals.” We also need stronger election laws in a variety of areas, including cracking down on incumbents like Kathy Byron who have engaged in the type of behavior outlined above, and penalizing those who have not been honest about their finances.
Bottom line: The Byron news drives home a fact that should have been obvious for a while, that the Commonwealth of Virginia can and should work towards limiting campaign finance, enforcing transparency, incorporating public election finance reform methods and stopping the dependence on self reporting from the lawmakers to enforce the laws on themselves.