RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Want to know who gave your state delegate or senator money just before the legislative session started? Tough luck.
Like they do every year, Virginia lawmakers kept busy raising money from the businesses and trade associations that try to influence the laws they pass — donations that won’t be made public until long after the 2016 session is over.
State law forbids legislators from fundraising during the session, a restriction that leads to a flurry of receptions and fundraisers in the run up to it. This year there were nearly 50 fundraisers scheduled for the first two weeks in January, including 20 on the two days before the session started Wednesday, according to a public calendar of political fundraisers kept by Richmond lobbyist David Bailey.
Only large donations to certain campaign committees have to be reported shortly after they are given. Most campaign finance reports won’t be due until this summer, meaning large sums of cash raised in the lead up to session won’t be made public for months.
But it’s likely the amounts are significant. From 2007 to 2015, lawmakers have raised about $2.5 million each January in the days before the session starts, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of campaign finance data provided by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan money-in-politics tracker. The total includes donations by lawmakers to other lawmakers as well as money raised for inaugural committees after statewide elections .
Dale Eisman, a senior writer at the good government group Common Cause, said there should be increased reporting of contributions around the legislative session — like there is near the end of a political campaign — because the timing of the contributions matter.
“Everybody’s nicer to grandma around Christmastime,” Eisman said.
More than half the states place some kind of limits on fundraising during session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those states vary in terms of reporting requirements. Lawmakers in Maryland, for instance, will have to report what they raised pre-session this year a week after their session starts. Depending on the year, it can be up to a year before pre-session fundraising has to be reported in Minnesota.
Most states that limit donations during sessions place limits on who can give and how large those donations can be, but Virginia has one of the least restrictive campaign finance systems in the country. Lawmakers have long defended Virginia’s largely unregulated campaign finance system by saying the state has strict disclosure requirements.
In Virginia, the lion’s share of giving in the days leading up to the session comes from corporate interests with traditionally close ties to the legislature, with some giving as much as $100,000 each year just before the session starts.
The biggest donors include energy giant Dominion Resources Inc., lobbying powerhouse McGuireWoods, Verizon, title loan company LoanMax and the Virginia Bankers Association.
Some major donors give the bulk of their donations in pre-session days. The personal injury law firm Allen Allen Allen & Allen, for example, gave Virginia politicians $151,000 in 2014, with 75 percent of that doled out in the days before session. Representatives from the law firm did not respond to requests for comment.
Del. Todd Gilbert, the point man for House Republicans on ethics issues, said he hosts a fundraiser just before the session because it’s convenient to do so and “the pressure to raise money is constant.” Gilbert said he’d be open to having more stricter disclosure requirements for pre-session donations, but he said lawmakers are still trying to figure out the nuances of the ethics law they passed last year and aren’t eager to pass additional laws.
Much of the corporate money is focused on legislative leadership in both chambers, who in the past have raised more than six figures in a pre-session fundraiser.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, for example, raised $125,000 in the days leading up to the last session for his personal campaign account, with virtually all of it coming from corporate donors that try to influence legislation. He also controls the Senate Democratic Caucus committee, which raised $55,000 from corporate donors in the days before the 2015 session.
Saslaw said he didn’t think voters were ill-served by not knowing who was giving him money until after the session was over.
“As long as they know before they have to cast a vote, that’s all that counts,” he said. “That’s all that counts.”
Associated Press writers Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, and Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed to this report.
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