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Peter’s Take: Virginia Ethics and Transparency Reforms for 2018

by Peter Rousselot December 14, 2017 at 2:45 pm 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Ralph Northam’s lopsided victory in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, and the huge increase in the numbers of Democratic delegates in the Virginia House (up from 34 to a minimum of 49), have substantially changed the political dynamics in Virginia state government.

It’s too soon to tell by exactly how much things have changed, but this recent conclusion by Del. Marcus Simon (D) strikes me as reasonable for 2018:

This is not the year for really progressive reforms, but for a move of the House back to the middle from so many years being stuck in the mud.

Delegate Simon noted that among the areas in which some positive gains could come are Virginia government ethics and transparency. Governor-elect Ralph Northam is on record that “Virginians deserve to know that their representatives are held to the highest standards of ethics.”

Newly-elected delegates, including Chris Hurst (D) and Danica Roem (D), already have expressed support for legislative initiatives on transparency.

Campaign Finance

For the last four years, Virginia Republican state legislators repeatedly blocked reforms which would have made it illegal to divert campaign donations for personal use:

While almost every other state and the federal government have figured out a way to make it illegal for politicians to use campaign funds for personal use, Virginia lawmakers said … the issue remains too complex for them to find a consensus.

In 2017, a bill sponsored by Simon that would have made this practice illegal was killed by an unrecorded voice vote in a legislative subcommittee. That substance and process needs to change:

  • Simon has again introduced his bill; it should be passed
  • All committee and subcommittee deliberations and votes should be live-streamed

Other Ethics Reforms

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) 2014 conviction for having violated a federal bribery statute spurred grudging reforms to Virginia’s state ethics laws in the next legislative session. The highlight of a Virginia law enacted in 2015 was the creation of a $100 annual limit on gifts from lobbyists to any single public official.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that McDonnell’s conduct did not violate federal criminal law, some Virginia legislators who never wanted to reform Virginia’s ethical practices in the first place started dropping hints that they would like to loosen things up again. Instead, the 2017 election results should lead to further strengthening of these laws.

States retain the power to decide whether politicians who do what McDonnell did should be:

  • excused for having done something that is just part of the normal political process (“they all do it”), or
  • subject to significant penalties for doing something that the public has decided is wrong

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision, Delegate Simon again drew the right lesson,”the fact that he didn’t break any laws doesn’t mean that our ethics laws aren’t broken.”

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.

Conclusion

Reforms in ethical practices and transparency are long overdue at every level of Virginia government. A welcome combination of energetic new delegates, joining seasoned leaders, should set the stage in 2018 for much-needed reforms in ethics and transparency.

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