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Campaign Finance Transparency in Virginia

Political analysts and operatives have long called Virginia the wild west of campaign finance. Unlike the vast majority of other states, as well as the federal government, Virginia has no limits on political donations. Individuals and corporations can give as much as they want to candidates and there are next to no limits on what kinds of goods and services companies can give.

Virginia’s system is predicated on disclosure. Without limits on donations the only way to prevent corruption and hold politicians accountable is to allow citizens to easily know who is giving what. Given the fact that Virginia has among the weakest campaign finance limits, to make the system work we need to compensate by having among the strongest disclosure laws in the county.

Earlier this summer, the Center for Public Integrity released its latest rankings on the financial disclosure practices of state legislatures. To grade out their survey the Center asks the real tough questions like: do you require financial disclosure filing, is employment information required and is client information required. Sarcasm aside, like 19 other states Virginia failed.

Scoring a very unimpressive 59.5, 35 points below standard bearing Louisiana, Virginia can also lay claim to having been ranked lower this time than in the 2006 study, dropping from 28 to 31. However, that’s nothing compared to the belly-flop they have done since the 1999 study, which had the state ranked 8th. So what happened? Well, if you are a glass half-full kind of guy you can take solace in the fact that Virginia’s plummeting in the rankings is more a product of the Commonwealth standing still, than going backwards. Since the 1999 study, when the state reached its financial disclosure apex, Virginia’s ethics laws have remained static and consequently it has been surpassed by states like Louisiana, Georgia, Kansas and New Jersey, which have made significant improvements.

From the study: “Virginia state legislators must fill out a statement of economic interest annually and must disclose outside employment or investment information. But the state lacks the necessary oversight to ensure that the forms are filled out correctly. While other states have made efforts to ensure accuracy, often with the creation of an independent commission, Virginia’s legislators are mostly left to police themselves.” Just as damning, while 29 states, eight of whom have done so since 2006, have improved public access by making these disclosure forms available online; guess who’s still not one of them?
What about the Virginia Public Access Project, you may ask? Well, yes, campaign disclosures are available online through a private group. But it isn’t enough for the Center that Virginia works with a private group. They require the state itself to make disclosures available. To make matters worse, despite the fact that Virginia doesn’t make disclosures available online, we are one of the 8 states that charge more than 50 cents per page for copying campaign finance reports in person.

So what would Virginia have to do to get back into the top 10 nationally? Well, first off, Virginia politicians would have to disclose more information about their employers. They would have to report outside employment starting at a lower income threshold, include their job titles and job descriptions and provide more information about how much money they make from each employer.

They would be required to give more information about directorships and the threshold for reporting investments would be lowered. Finally, there would need to be a central office for disclosures, we would have to stop having people who inspect the records sign a release form, the fee for copying records in person would have to be reduced, disclosures would have to be made available on the web and the state would have to penalize and name late filers.

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