While most members of the general public are not paying attention, Virginia legislators are trying to restore the old ways of doing business. Senate Bill 692 passed by the Virginia Senate on February 15 would water down even the overly-modest government ethics reforms enacted in 2015.
What Virginia did in 2015
Last year, begrudgingly, Virginia enacted modest government ethics reform legislation. The highlight of the law passed last year was placing a $100 annual limit on gifts to public officials from lobbyists and some others. Last year, current Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) was quoted as saying that the only reason that the legislation was considered in the first place was because “the media is on our backs.”
Undermining 2015’s reforms
Norment is leading the effort this year to water down last year’s work.
Among the new loopholes incorporated into SB 692:
- A suggestion by Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) that would exempt “food and beverages” from the definition of gifts that must be disclosed and counted toward the $100 annual aggregate gift amount. Black told fellow senators that last year’s legislation had “unintended consequences” that have been “demeaning to us as legislators,” because of “the very notion that if somebody gives me a prime rib as opposed to a hamburger I’m going to change my vote.” Meals accounted for nearly half of the gifts lawmakers disclosed last year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
- A suggestion by Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg) that would prohibit lobbyists from disclosing the name of any “legislative or executive official, or a member of his family” if any of those people pay their own way to attend an event that is subject to being reported because the event itself is paid for by a lobbyist.
- The Joint Rules Committee could exempt any 501(c)(3) organization from the gift rules for gifts to any legislator. The same gift to a member of the executive branch or a local official would still be a gift.
Last year, the legislature enacted modest ethics reforms primarily due to relentless prodding from Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. Unfortunately, this year, Governor McAuliffe’s own administration is caught up in a controversy over whether certain members of the administration, including Virginia Commerce Secretary Maurice Jones, failed to disclose gifts of Redskins skybox tickets valued at more than $100.
What Virginia should do in 2016
The House of Delegates should reject all of the proposed new loopholes embodied in SB 692. Governor McAuliffe should veto any legislation that embodies any of these loopholes.
In addition, Virginia should create a new, independent Ethics Review Commission with teeth, including subpoena and enforcement power. A large majority of other states, including Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania have permanent ethics commissions. In Massachusetts, for example, its Ethics Commission can impose the following penalties:
- A civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation of the conflict of interest law or the financial disclosure law, and
- A maximum civil penalty of $25,000 for bribery.
Our legislators should be able to find a model for Virginia that combines effective enforcement power with safeguards against partisan abuse.