Uranium firm pumps money into assembly

Posted: Sunday, January 20, 2013 7:03 am | Updated: 5:13 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

BY MARY BETH JACKSON, The Register & Bee

The Senate bill proposing to lift the moratorium on uranium mining will be considered by a committee in which 80 percent of its members have taken money from Virginia Uranium.

Sen. John Watkins has said the legislation, filed Friday with the Senate Clerk, will be vetted through the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee; 12 of 15 committee members have accepted campaign money and trips from Virginia Uranium since 2008.

Virginia Uranium wants to mine a 119-million-pound uranium ore deposit in Pittsylvania County, approximately six miles from Chatham. The company has been lobbying the legislature to write regulations for uranium mining and milling, which would effectively lift a 1982 moratorium on the industry.

Watkins, the committee’s chairman, has received the most from Virginia Uranium, according to records from the Virginia Public Access Project. He has received $2,000 in campaign contributions, and has taken two trips paid for by Virginia Uranium. Watkins traveled in 2011 to Canada, for which the company paid $2,658, and traveled to France in 2010, for $12,985. Both trips were to see uranium mining sites.

Some of VUI’s biggest supporters in the legislature are also the biggest recipients of VUI money. Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, received $10,000 in campaign contributions from Virginia Uranium in 2011.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said nailing the connection between contributions and votes isn’t simple.

“I don’t think anyone can say categorically that money does or doesn’t influence a decision,” she said.

She added: “There are plenty of companies and individuals who give money to people who are not necessarily aligned with them.”

Rhyne said corporate donations hearken back to the chicken and egg enigma: Does the company give money to legislators who already take their views, or do legislators lean their way because of the company’s generosity?

“Sometimes it’s too easily assumed one way or the other,” she said.

What Virginia Uranium may be getting for its dollars is access, said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, where he teaches courses in American politics and quantitative analysis and chairs the department of government.

“The best way to get in front of people is to be a contributor,” Kidd said. “What campaign contributions get you is access.”

He added: “If you’re a big contributor for them [legislators], it’s easier for them to make time for you. They want access to people on the committees that will pass legislation that will affect their business.”

The Virginia Coal and Energy Commission made a recommendation that the legislature direct the state to write regulations for uranium mining and milling. Eight of 13 legislators sitting on that committee have received campaign contributions and/or trips from Virginia Uranium, and all eight voted in favor of the recommendation.

“There’s certainly a correlation between campaign contributions and voting in favor of the company,” Kidd said.

However, he noted, correlation doesn’t equal causation.

“Is it a question of the company making a really compelling case, or is something more there?” he said.

Kidd said it’s wrong to assume that Virginia Uranium bought those votes.

“They’re not giving money for votes. People are not buying votes,” he said. “I don’t think we have a lot of that in Virginia. When we do, it doesn’t take long before people get in trouble for it.”

Instead, Kidd says, he has noticed a business-friendly climate in the assembly.

“I think the General Assembly is more inclined to support a business proposition than not,” he said.

Kidd causation there are two strategies to achieving an agenda with the legislature: direct lobbying and public grass roots efforts.

Virginia Uranium has put its money into direct lobbying, by campaign contributions and paid lobbyists. The company has 20 registered lobbyists angling for face time with 140 legislators in Richmond.

Jackson reports for the Danville Register & Bee.

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