The Senate Rules committee is where they change the rules.
And on Thursday, with little fanfare, senators began the process of making significant changes to the rules governing one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed last year: Ethics reforms embedded into the Conflict of Interest Act covering state and local government officials and legislators.
Senators on the panel took several bills that revise, rescind and in some cases expand the threshold for disclosure of gifts and rolled them into one piece of legislation, Senate Bill 692, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City.
The new bill includes a revision proposed 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 that lawmakers can accept from lobbyists and their principals.
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.”
“I want to preserve the dignity of the legislature,” he added. “I don’t think anybody is going to be influenced by a fine meal.”
The new bill also includes a provision offered 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 the official pays their own way at an event that is subject to being reported.
Norment last year was among senators who argued that the new ethics reform law was ill-conceived and hastily adopted in the closing hours of the 2015 session.
Lobbyists also said the measure was confusing to them, and expressed concern that they could unintentionally violate the new rules, which were designed to promote greater transparency and accountability between the public, lawmakers and the people who try to influence them.
Lawmakers who supported the legislation said it was a necessary first step toward restoring public faith in government and the people who serve following the corruption convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell.
In this year’s legislation, Norment includes a provision that would roll back the requirement of semi-annual filing by lobbyists and lawmakers to an annual filing period for both entities. Lawmakers would be required to file a supplement to their annual filing by July 1 covering activity during the annual legislative session.
Norment’s bill also includes a change that would exempt from reporting any gift less than $20 in value. Such gifts would not count toward the $100 annual aggregate limit that officials can receive from any one lobbyist. And he amended his own legislation to raise the threshold of gifts that must be reported from $50 to $100.
The bill also includes reporting revisions for participation by lawmakers or General Assembly staff at annual conferences such as the National Conference of State Legislatures and American Legislative Exchange Council.
Senators on the committee, on which Republicans hold a 12-3 majority, easily approved the omnibus bill, which will head to the full Senate for consideration.
It’s unclear what reception it will meet in the House of Delegates and how Gov. Terry McAuliffe will handle the legislation.
McAuliffe pushed hard for the disclosure and $100 aggregate cap provisions in last year’s bill, but he has recently been criticized for the actions Commerce Secretary Maurice Jones, who accepted a free ticket valued well above the governor’s own $100 aggregate limit to a Washington Redskins luxury box for last month’s NFC playoff game.