Under current law, Virginia’s elected officials can use campaign donations for pretty much anything they want: college tuition, expensive jewelry, even a downpayment on a yacht.
Most officeholders don’t go to such extremes. But they still bill their campaigns for all sorts of dubious reasons, including thousands of dollars in cellphone bills, fancy dinners and expensive hotel stays — despite the fact that legislators, for instance, receive per diem allowances to cover travel costs and personal expenses when they’re on government time, in addition to a $15,000 office allowance.
Legislators aren’t alone in the practice, either. Former first lady Maureen McDonnell spent nearly $10,000 of her husband Bob’s campaign and political action committee funds on clothing.
The wide-open use of campaign funds for personal reasons is not only legal, it’s also not even checked. The state Board of Elections does not audit campaign expenditures. If this does not make the commonwealth unique in the nation, it certainly makes the state unusual. And unwise.
This year a couple of lawmakers introduced bills to put guardrails on the use of campaign funds. They have gone nowhere.
The reason is obvious. And amusing. Del. Mark Cole, one of the sponsors of the bills to rein in potential abuse, said the issue is really complicated. As The Daily Press reported, “Cole said several lawmakers shared private concerns that a proposed ban would make harmless behavior illegal. He said one lawmaker, who Cole declined to name, brought up a scenario in which the lawmaker bought a box of donuts for a campaign rally and then shared some of the donuts with family members after the event.”
The leftover-doughnut excuse is the equivalent of arguing that a private corporation cannot have a rule against stealing from the company because some employees take calls from their spouses at their desks. It’s a ridiculous reductio ad absurdum.
A reasonable case can be made that state legislators should get a raise, and in fact a state ethics commission recommended a substantial raise a couple of years ago. Lawmakers haven’t had a pay hike in nearly three decades, and the current levels — $17,640 for members of the House of Delegates and $18,000 for state senators — fall far short of reasonable compensation for the amount of work legislators do. In fact, the low pay scales create an obstacle to average citizens who might otherwise consider public service.
Raising pay instead of leaving campaign funds available for personal use might seem almost like an accounting change — insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and unlikely to affect the lives of ordinary Virginians in any tangible way. But there is one big difference to the approach — the difference between honesty and dishonesty. In a state where “The Virginia Way” has become a punchline, that should be more than reason enough.