Senate spikes bill to rein in personal use of campaign cash

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia Senate effectively killed a measure Tuesday that would have prevented politicians from putting campaign funds toward personal uses, with an exception for child care-related expenses.

Virginia has one of the least restrictive and policed campaign finance systems in the country and is an outlier in the nation for not already having such a ban. But state lawmakers, who insist they want to work on the issue, have repeatedly balked in recent years at making a change.

The measure had advanced from a Senate committee last week, but lawmakers Tuesday voted to send it back to committee. That ended its chances for the year because the deadline for committee action on bills has passed.

“I am disappointed that this commonsense bill that is law in 47 other states hit a roadblock in the Virginia State Senate once again, despite having had bipartisan support year after year," the bill's chief sponsor, Del. Marcus Simon, said.

Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds urged his colleagues to keep the bill alive. He said constituents have read news stories over the years about lawmakers misusing their campaign funds and want a change.

“It’s been embarrassing for all of us,” he said.

Lawmakers are currently only barred from using campaign funds for personal use once they close out their accounts.

A 2016 Associated Press review of the state’s campaign finance system found that some lawmakers were frequently using campaign accounts to pay for expensive meals and hotels, as well as personal expenses like gas and cellphone bills.

This year's legislation directed the State Board of Elections to create regulations that implement the provisions of the bill, which lawmakers said created a degree of vagueness and could strain the board.

Republican Sen. Jill Vogel made the motion to refer the bill back to committee, saying the language in the measure was “unwieldy at this point.”

“In the current environment, I’m not confident that we actually have the resources right now to actually manage what this would direct us to undertake,” said Vogel, the managing partner of a law firm who specializes in election law and ethics and who has previously sponsored similar legislation.

Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, who had indicated in committee that he might weigh in to amend the bill, noted Tuesday that lawmakers have been advancing a bill to create a joint subcommittee to study comprehensive campaign finance reform.

“That will I think provide a good environment for this issue be fully vetted, to get a work product that comes out that doesn’t have any unforeseen consequences,” Surovell said.

Simon said nearly every politician at the federal, state and local level has figured out how to manage similar rules.

“The idea that more study is required is a little hard to fathom,” he said.