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Pilot Online: Va. lawmakers vote to further limit lobbyists' gifts Print

BY:  Kathy Hieatt and Patrick Wilson

Created:  Wednesday, February 11, 2015

 

Their faces grew sullen and serious. Some of them blamed the media for bringing attention to the issue.

But after a bitter discussion about whether to limit the value of gifts, vacations and fine dining they can ethically accept from lobbyists, most Republicans, who control the state Senate, voted to do just that Tuesday.

The House of Delegates and Senate passed bills that would cap gifts and travel from lobbyists or those with business before the state at $100.

"Most of us are going to vote for this bill. Why? Because we have the press that's going to beat us over the head if we don't," said Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania.

The measure is part of an ethics reform process that began in last year's session, when lawmakers capped gifts at $250 but left intangibles such as travel and Washington Redskins tickets at unlimited amounts.

The vote comes a month after former Gov. Bob McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison in a gift scandal, although Senators said the changes they're considering may have had no bearing on McDonnell because he considered the businessman who gave him and his family gifts to be a friend.

Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County and sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, said the bill was imperfect and subject to change before passage. The Senate bill passed 35-1, and the House bill passed 93-6.

Republican Sen. John Watkins, who is retiring at the end of his term, faulted the media a year ago during the debate on the ethics package, saying the law would create "tripwires" for lawmakers.

Watkins, the recipient of lobbyist-funded trips to France and Canada and to NASCAR and IndyCar races, made similar comments Tuesday.

If lawmakers eventually banned gifts, they would deserve a raise to match the salary of what they'd get if they were on a corporate board, the Powhatan lawmaker said.

"My admonition would be to the press," he said. "Figure it out, because I don't think you have yet. You're making it difficult, if not impossible, for everyday people to be willing to put up with the frustration and the overbearance that is taking place on a topic that is brought to us - not by our own doing - by you and a case involving an executive officer."

Two senators didn't vote on SB1424, and Sen. Kenny Alexander, D-Norfolk, was the dissenter. He said the bill doesn't reform much and ignores the unlimited campaign donations allowed in Virginia. He suggested lawmakers discuss banning gifts, as did Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford County.

"Virginians are looking at us, and they want some true reforms," Alexander said after the vote. Unlimited campaign donations are "where the money is. It's the $10,000 contributions that influence elections at the last minute."

He also said he doesn't like that the ethics advisory council's members - to include lawmakers and retired judges - would be appointed by the House speaker, the Senate Rules Committee and the governor. They'd be political appointees and could make political decisions on when to grant waivers and allow travel or gifts, he said.

McAuliffe and some Democrats favor an independent commission that would investigate lawmakers on ethics violations, but Republicans say they worry it could be used for political purposes.

On the Senate floor, Norment addressed why his 110-page bill didn't address campaign donations.

"Because it's not in my bill, that's why," he said.

Supporters of the legislation in the House, including its chief patron, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, called it a dramatic improvement. Enforcement should be left to commonwealth's attorneys and grand juries, he said.

The six House "no" votes were from Democrats, most from Northern Virginia.

They said the bill should give the state's ethics panel subpoena and enforcement powers.

"This bill does a lot of good," said Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, who voted against it. "But it also has some shortfalls."


 



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