State senators on Monday took a significant step toward undoing a substantial portion of the ethics reform law they grudgingly passed last year.
In a bipartisan vote in which eight Democrats joined 21 Republicans, members passed Senate Bill 692, which exempts food and beverages from disclosure counting toward the $100 annual gift limit imposed last year.
Meals accounted for nearly half of the gifts lawmakers disclosed last year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
The omnibus bill, carried by Sen. Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, also exempts any gifts less than $20 in value from counting toward the $100 gift limit, and raises the threshold for disclosure from $50 to $100. It would also exempt from disclosure the name of any official who pays their own way at a lobbyist event.
The measure also changes the time frame in which lawmakers and lobbyists must file disclosure reports, and exempts from disclosure trips paid for by membership organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislatures or the American Legislative Exchange Council, or any nonprofit group designated by the General Assembly’s Joint Rules Committee.
While critics of last year’s law said it was confusing, complicated and cumbersome, supporters of the reforms saw them as necessary first steps toward restoring faith and accountability in public servants and government, following the federal corruption conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell.
“Today’s passage of SB692 is an affront to public integrity,” said Progress Virginia Executive Director Anna Scholl.
“It’s outrageous these 29 senators approved gutting last year’s ethics reforms. Virginians demanded real reform after an embarrassing scandal. Now, some politicians are trying to undo that progress while they think their constituents aren’t paying attention.”
The measure now heads to the House, where Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, a leader in pushing for last year’s reforms, has proposed some housekeeping changes to the existing law, including a similarly amended disclosure filing schedule and “pay your own way” bill.
With the crossover deadline for legislation looming Tuesday — each chamber must complete their bills, so they can go to the other chamber — the Virginia Senate also passed a range of bills to the House. Among them:
- Senate Bill 552 would exempt from the Freedom of Information Act access to the records of the names and related information of law enforcement personnel.
- Senate Bill 458 would require school systems to suspend a student only after all alternative means of addressing an issue have been exhausted.
- Senate Bill 577 would require an official who sues a member of the public who speaks out on a “matter of public concern” in a public setting to pay the legal fees of the defendant if the suit is unsuccessful.
- Senate Bill 760 makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to use a digital image to impersonate somebody online, with the intent to defraud or defame.
- Senate Bill 178 makes the General Assembly, not the Virginia State Police, the arbiter with the Virginia Attorney General of concealed handgun reciprocity with other states.