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by Brandon Jarvis

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee amended and advanced legislation Tuesday that would drastically increase penalties for attack ads that are missing a disclaimer.

The current law tops out at $2,500 in penalties for anonymous attack ads. The patron of the bill, Del. Glenn Davis (R), was the target of anonymous attack ads last year and filed a defamation suit over it. He says political consultants see the risk of a $1,000 fine as an acceptable expense for launching these anonymous attack ads. 

“This is not a decision that is accidentally overlooked,” Davis said to the committee. 

The original bill from Davis that already passed 97-2 in the House of Delegates included a mandatory civil fine of $10,000 for attacking a declared opponent without a disclaimer.

The mandatory aspect of the bill caught some pushback from Democrats who eventually proposed and approved changing the language to say up to $25,000 with discretion. 

The bill also received pushback from Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D) who worried about the aspect of only punishing negative ads and the potential for speech content discrimination under the first amendment. “How is that not content discrimination,” McClellan asked. 

Sen. Scott Surovell (D) echoed that sentiment, saying “we are treating political speech in a differential fashion.” 

McClellan eventually signed onto the bill after language was included through an amendment saying the offense must clearly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. 

The Senators agreed to the final version including a civil fine with discretion up to $25,000 for an attack ad without a disclaimer. They agreed to exclude campaign volunteer phone calls from being held liable, but automated calls can still result in a fine under this legislation. 

The bill passed 14-0 with Surovell abstaining.

The committee also advanced legislation from Del. Tim Anderson (R) that would establish a state-funded campaign finance database that can be searched by Virginians.

Establishing something similar to what the Virginia Public Access Project already does, Anderson said “it’s not going to be as good as VPAP visually,” when presenting the bill. It passed unanimously.

Anderson also championed another bill through the committee Tuesday that will provide military service members permanently stationed in Virginia with the opportunity to vote in Virginia without having to establish permanent residency and pay income taxes.

Democrats pushed back against the bill after Anderson mentioned that the members of the military are avoiding paying higher income taxes.

“If they want to have a say in how Virginia tax dollars should be spent, then they should contribute,” Chair Adam Ebbin (D) said in response.

“They should have some say in who their school board members are,” Anderson said.

The committee eventually voted 10-5 to advance the legislation.

By vascope