- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2000

RICHMOND Every year, the General Assembly considers bills to limit the amount of campaign money candidates for state offices may spend or accept from contributors. And every year, the bills die.

This year, with Republicans firmly in control for the first time, there are at least four bills that would cap either campaign contributions or expenditures. Three of them would limit contributions, and the fourth would impose voluntary caps on campaign spending.

The prospects that they will become law, however, seem no brighter than before.

Virginia is the only state that puts no limits on the amounts candidates can raise and spend, and each election brings new money records. Candidates for statewide election in other states have held fund-raisers in Virginia because there is no limit.

In 1997, Gov. James S. Gilmore III raised $10.5 million to get elected, a record for a gubernatorial candidate.

Last fall, Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Virginia Beach Sheriff Frank Drew, spent nearly $1 million for a seat in the House of Delegates.

"It's all gotten so professional professional campaign staffs, media firms that handle all the printing," said Delegate Marian Van Landingham, Alexandria Democrat and co-chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, where the campaign-finance bills await action.

Virginia politicians and political parties have come to rely on big money, and they are loath to restrict how they may raise it or spend it, Mrs. Van Landingham said. That is especially true considering the competitiveness created by the close balance of legislative power in the state between the Republicans and Democrats.

In November's elections, the GOP won 53 seats in the 100-member House of Delegates, its first majority ever. The party has held 21 of the Senate's 40 seats for two years.

A perennial problem is the so-called "millionaire exemption." The legislature could cap what candidates accept directly from individuals, organizations or political action committees, but it can't stop wealthy candidates from using their own fortunes, said Scott Leake, director of the Joint Republican Caucus.

Sen. J. Randy Forbes, a member of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, said that campaign-finance limits would put elected offices in the hands of those who can afford it and political debate too much in the hands of the media.

"I view those as media-enhancement bills," said Mr. Forbes, who is also chairman of the state Republican Party. "No question that the price tags have gotten high, but what's driving the cost is media, the price of TV or newspaper ads."

Without the ability to buy advertising to rebut claims a candidate or party considers false or misleading, the media alone would decide what the public sees and hears, Mr. Forbes said.

Capping direct contributions also does nothing to halt party caucuses or organizations from targeting specific races and independently aiding their candidates in targeted races, Mr. Leake said.

One reason campaign-finance bills have lacked the momentum to become law is legislators detect little public concern about it, said Delegate Lacey Putney of Bedford, whose 38 years in the House make him the longest-serving delegate in Virginia history.

"Except for one or two constituents, I have heard no complaints or concerns about it," said Mr. Putney, an independent and the other co-chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee.

"If this issue had the level of visibility that transportation and education have, I suspect you'd see a lot more action on it," Mrs. Van Landingham said.

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