Lawmakers return to Richmond Wednesday, and already leaders in the House of Delegates have struck a bipartisan deal to tighten up the state's gift laws for politicians.
Ethics reform has been a hot topic for months, ever since the gift scandal involving Governor Bob McDonnell highlighted concerns over Virginia's existing gift rules for politicians. State law currently requires that office holders report any gift worth more than $50 - with no limit on those gifts.
Now, just in time for the 2014 General Assembly session, Republicans and Democrats in the House of Delegates think they have made a good first step toward tightening up those rules.
House leaders have spent the past few months hammering out a bipartisan ethics reform proposal, focused on a few key areas. The plan includes a $250 cap on "tangible" gifts from lobbyists and individuals with business before the state. It also requires more detailed reporting for "intangible" gifts, like food and travel.
Addressing concerns from the McDonnell scandal, the plan requires spouses and immediate family members report gifts. It would also require ethics and disclosure training for elected officials, and create a State Ethics Advisory Commission to address ongoing, related issues.
Charlottesville Delegate David Toscano says the proposal is an important step toward restoring faith in Virginia's elected leaders.
"We think we have the outline of an agreement now, and we have to turn it into a bill," Toscano said. "It will have to go through the legislative process, it will probably change a little bit along the way, but at the end we'll have something good that people can be proud of."
Senate leaders from both parties embraced the house proposal as a step in the right direction, but say they look forward to offering their own input in the months ahead. The 60 day legislative session begins Wednesday at noon in Richmond.
Virginia House Republican Campaign Committee Press Release
RICHMOND, VA – Republican and Democratic lawmakers announced Tuesday a bipartisan agreement on a comprehensive package of reforms to Virginia's ethics, transparency and disclosure laws. The agreement is the result of months-long discussions between members of both parties and includes over a dozen reforms in four major categories.
If adopted, the proposal would institute a $250 gift cap on tangible items from lobbyists and individuals with business before the state. It would create a "State Ethics Advisory Commission" tasked with reviewing financial disclosures, maintaining an online transparency website and conducting mandatory training for elected officials, among other responsibilities. The proposal would make reforms to modernize and update the disclosure system to require the disclosure of gifts given to family members, synchronize filing deadlines for legislator and lobbyist disclosures and clarify important definitions related to "gifts," "travel" and other expenses. The proposal would also institute intensive, mandatory ethics and disclosure training for all elected officials.
Speaking about the proposal, House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said:
"The agreement announced today is the result of months of painstaking work by members of both parties and demonstrates a bipartisan understanding of the need to preserve trust in government. We hope the changes outlined today will help restore any public trust lost due to recent events. The citizens of the Commonwealth must know without hesitation or qualification that their elected leaders can be trusted to execute their duties with the highest degree of integrity and virtue.
"These are strong, comprehensive reforms that will increase accountability, promote greater transparency and preserve the integrity of state government and those who serve the citizens of our Commonwealth. We recognize that the legislative process always results in changes, often for the better, but hope that our colleagues in the General Assembly will review these proposals carefully and that they, as well as the public, can embrace them."
The agreement is currently being drafted into legislative form and will be filed in the coming weeks. It includes over a dozen reforms in four major categories.
Gift Ban & Cap
-Regular review of all lobbyist, legislator, executive branch and local government financial disclosures
-Posting and maintaining all disclosure forms online in searchable form
-Offer advice to individuals under the Conflicts of Interest Act, similar to how the FOIA Council successfully operates today
-Issue formal advisory opinions related to ethics, transparency and disclosure
-Serve as the official study commission for the General Assembly on ethics, transparency and disclosure matters
-Conduct official training and education courses for individuals under COIA and the public
-The commission will not have subpoena or independent investigatory powers, as the House and Senate Ethics Advisory Panels already have such powers.
Modernize & Update Disclosure System