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Contributions: Trouble by Design

Candidates are playing by the rules, but the rules need to change. Successful political campaigns take a lot of money. Many unsuccessful campaigns absorb huge quantities of money. For example, the two major candidates for chairman of the Board of Supervisors will likely spend a combined $1.2 million financing their campaigns. Many state senate contests will have candidates spending $250,000 and more, each.

Virginia has fewer restrictions on campaign contributions than almost any other state. There are no limits on contributions or expenditures, but candidates are required to disclose and report all contribution of $100 or more. An active campaign might well garner more than half its contributions in these small bits that do not require reporting.

The members of the Board of Supervisors in Fairfax County spend much of their legislative time on land use and development issues. And as it turns out, major contributors to campaigns, especially the campaigns of incumbent members of the Board of Supervisors, are developers and other individuals and companies related to real estate interests.

As a result, board members routinely disclose, as they are required to, at the beginning of discussion on particular land use decisions that they have received contributions of $200 or more from one of the participants in the application.

In some of these cases, like two recent cases in Tyson Corner, millions of dollars are at stake in profits for developers. Supervisors can legally take thousands of dollars in contributions from a developer who will benefit in even more dollars from the decisions made by those same officials. It happens all the time. It perfectly legal. Supervisors say that their decisions would be the same with or without the contributions.

Development interests are not the only ones playing this game. A variety of other special interests participate in the political process by means of contributions.

In addition to accepting contributions, almost all elected officials in Virginia are part time with salaries that fall short of providing adequate income. Consequently, most members of the Board of Supervisors, the School Board and the General Assembly must find outside employment, and this opens other areas of possible conflict, actual and perceived.

Participants have come from both parties and include all incumbents. While there has been a rash of partisan finger-pointing lately, both sides have been taking the money and all parties appear to be operating within the law.

The entire system smells bad. The system stinks. And no one who participates is untainted.

After the election, we urge the development of a blue ribbon task force to study campaign reform. And members of the Board of Supervisors, at least, should get full-time pay.

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