05/11/11: Following the money in Virginia politics

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

WHEN IT comes to campaign finance, Virginia is a state with no limits. Contributions can be from just about any person or organization and of any size. The only thing required is that the contributions and information on the donor be disclosed for amounts in excess of $100.

For years, candidates filed financial disclosure reports on paper, making it virtually impossible for the average citizen to view and analyze the data. I recall those bumper stickers from Henry Howell, “Welcome to Virginia, owned and operated by VEPCO.” The problem was, we couldn’t easily tell just how much influence VEPCO, now Dominion Virginia Power, actually had via its contributions to candidates.

That changed in 1997 with the creation of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project. What began as the simple entering of data from the paper reports has evolved into a must-view website, www. vpap.org, for anyone interested in following the money in Virginia politics. All of the state-level candidates and committees are included. In addition, 25 cities and counties, including most in Hampton Roads, can be viewed.

Over the years, the information provided by VPAP has gotten better and more comprehensive. The job of this small organization — it has a staff of just four — got a bit easier once the legislature provided for electronic filing of the periodic financial reports. This allows VPAP to enhance the data, making it easy to find information not only by the recipient of the contribution but also by donors, vendors or industry. Nearly all the members of the General Assembly file electronically, and many of the political action committees are required to do so.

One benefit of electronic filing of financial reports is that the data is available soon after the filing deadline. The State Board of Elections provides a calendar of the filing — the next due date is 5 p.m. July 15 — and within a few minutes of the appointed hour, the raw data from the reports is available on VPAP. It takes a couple of days for the site to update the data: The enhanced data from the April 15 reports was available by 1 p.m. April 18.

But it is not just the periodic financial reports that are housed on the VPAP website. Also included are candidate Statements of Economic Interests — extremely useful in determining if a legislator has a conflict — as well as information on lobbyists and who they represent. Also included is data on the legislative districts, including maps of each and the party performance.

With redistricting being the top issue this year, VPAP integrated data about it into its site. You can, for example, view a map of the new House and Senate districts, with the old districts overlaid by the new and color-coded for the changes in the partisan makeup of each.

Precinct-by-precinct information is available for the political junkies among us. I can see, for example, that my own precinct, now in the 83rd House District, was won in 2008 by President Barack Obama and in 2009 by Gov. Bob McDonnell, lieutenant governor candidate Jody Wagner and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the last by just one vote.

VPAP is one of those non-biased sources that helps voters to reduce information costs. It provides a treasure trove of data easily and readily available to all of us.

As for Howell, the Norfolk populist who died in 1997, I suspect he’d take little comfort in knowing that Dominion — some say it was because of Howell that VEPCO (“the Very Expensive Power Company”) changed its name — remains a major contributor to politicians in Virginia. It is the top donor to date in Virginia this year and the top corporate donor over the last five years.

Puts those rate increases in perspective, doesn’t it?