Editorial: After secrecy in light rail fight, greater transparency is needed in Virginia’s campaign finance law

POSITION: A bill to end an exemption for some nonprofits seeking to influence referenda could mean our public policy and spending choices will be made by better-informed citizens. It deserves support in Richmond.

Every Virginian should know who is paying to influence their vote. Virginia Beach citizens were denied that right in the 2016 light rail referendum because state campaign finance law is flawed. The General Assembly can prevent this from happening again. 

The law now excludes 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations from reporting requirements. That means businesses and people with a financial stake in ballot questions can use such nonprofits as a vehicle to hide the extent of spending to influence voters. 

This may have happened during the referendum here. Virginia Beach voters simply do not know because the law allowed a nonprofit group supporting extension of the Tide from Newtown Station to Town Center to avoid disclosure requirements for referendum committees.

State Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-8th District, seeks to correct the flaw that allowed this to be a possibility. Whatever one’s feelings about light rail, DeSteph’s bill deserves the support of all citizens of Virginia Beach — and, for that matter, every Virginian.

This is a bigger issue than the Tide.

This is not about transportation but transparency.

DeSteph this month filed a bill [SB 1142] that would remove a sliver of language that created the exemption that shielded spending and backing during the light rail referendum. 

His reasoning is clear and unimpeachable. “I believe if you’re doing something to persuade a political issue, you should disclose who is donating money,” the senator said earlier this month.

Here, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit called Light Rail Now, Inc., spent untold sums collected from unidentified purses. The nonprofit used names such as Virginia Beach Connex and Mission Transport VB while communicating with voters in our city. It was sometimes — but not always — clear when Light Rail Now was behind its advocacy for “yes” votes, meaning support to extend the Tide.

Last spring, Light Rail Now sought and received an opinion from state election officials that the group did not need to form a referendum committee, which would require disclosure through reports the public can inspect before it votes. With that opinion in hand, Light Rail Now made a decision to withhold financial information that, in other instances, the law requires be made clear to citizens. 

Light Rail Now could have reported any of this information to voters, but it was within its rights to withhold it. That it chose secrecy is neither surprising nor the issue at the heart of The Independent News’ reporting on this issue over the past several months. 

The fact that the organization had this choice to make at all is what demonstrates the problem in current campaign finance law.

This past year,  reports by this newspaper demonstrated the exemption is at odds with guidance state election officials provide to those who would advocate in referenda. 

The guidance effectively is made useless given the opinion, but it is superior to the law because it is in the public’s interest to know who is speaking to them when public policy or spending is at stake. 

It is in the public’s interest for advocates seeking votes in a referendum to be required to identify the sources of their funding in campaign financial disclosure reports that are filed regularly and made easily available for public inspection before election day.

It also is in the public’s interest to know how such group’s spend that money, which is why they should be required to itemize spending in disclosures that are readily available for public inspection.

Referendum committees file such disclosures under the law.

The Independent News rarely publishes editorials. This newspaper has never taken a side in whether extending light rail into the city is either good or bad. Virginia Beach voters made their own choice in November. It is possible secrecy by proponents of extending the Tide worked against their own cause.

Yet that vote is past. Consider what may come if state law remains unchanged. What if other organizations, opinion in hand, follow Light Rail Now’s example? If secrecy remains an option, what organization or individual would avoid the temptation to keep fingerprints off efforts to influence Virginians? 

The Independent News supports greater transparency in public business, including speech meant to sway choices in our political elections and ballot initiatives. With support, DeSteph’s bill will lead to a law that fosters better-informed conversations about the people’s business. This is a simple fix that will eliminate a troubling loophole in law governing political speech. This bill is about honesty.

Without change, voters in ballot initiatives may continue to be left in the dark by those with a stake in the way tax dollars are spent, those who would shape policies that govern their interests.

Virginians should expect those speaking to them to step into the light and identify themselves. There is no way to hide our need for better law.

© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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