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Support growing for ethics legislation

Fredericksburg-area legislators say they’ll back ethics reform legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session, but they doubt bills will include strict limits on gifts to lawmakers.

“It’s an issue I think we have to address this year,” House Speaker Bill Howell, R–Stafford, told the Fredericksburg Area Chamber of Commerce early Thursday morning during its annual pre-session meeting with legislators.

Virginia’s gift and disclosure laws for elected officials are under scrutiny because of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s relationship with, and gifts from, wealthy donor Jonnie Williams Sr. while Williams was also seeking state help with products made by his company, Star Scientific.

Williams gave McDonnell and McDonnell’s wife and children thousands of dollars in trips and gifts, including checks for two daughters’ weddings and a Rolex watch Maureen McDonnell is reported to have given to McDonnell. Williams also loaned the McDonnells money.

McDonnell has repeatedly said he abided by Virginia’s disclosure laws in reporting the gifts—Virginia law doesn’t require the reporting of gifts to officials’ family members. He eventually returned many of the gifts and repaid the loans.

But lawmakers still expect to make changes to the gift and disclosure laws.

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe has promised to put a strict cap on gifts to himself after he becomes governor.

But lawmakers seem to be looking at requiring more disclosure, rather than limiting the gifts themselves.

Howell told the Chamber that he has a policy group of House Republicans looking at the issue and that they’re floating some proposals by other lawmakers, seeking a consensus.

He said he doesn’t want to enact a “draconian” ban on gifts, saying that doing so could create an “artificial barrier” that would just prompt lobbyists and others to find a way around it.

“There are things you can clearly do for transparency, for clarity,” Howell said.

He also said a reform bill is likely to include restrictions on or disclosure requirements for gifts to family members.

“The family thing is obviously part of it,” Howell said.

After the meeting, Howell said tight caps on gifts would prevent lawmakers from attending conferences with national legislative organizations.

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R–Spotsylvania, said he’s interested in reforms that better align the date when legislators report gifts with the date that lobbyists report what they’ve spent on gifts—dinners, ball games, trips, etc.—for legislators. Currently those two reporting dates are months apart.

Del. Mark Cole, R–Spotsylvania, said he’d like to see a change that would require lawmakers to report their assets over the entire year. Current law is essentially a snapshot of what assets an elected official has—stocks, salaries, properties—at the end of the year. But the Washington Post reported that Maureen McDonnell bought Star Scientific stock in 2011, sold it that December at a loss, then bought stock in the company again in January 2012. State law requires elected officials to report stock holdings over $10,000 if they have it at the end of the year. The Star Scientific stock wasn’t reported on McDonnell’s statement of economic interest.

Chamber members asked the group of area legislators several questions about issues like Medicaid expansion, which the Chamber favors and the local General Assembly delegation does not.

“I find it amazing that folks believe expanding a welfare program would drive economic development,” said newly elected 55th House of Delegates member Buddy Fowler.

The group was also asked if it would back reforms to state workers’ compensation laws, particularly some sort of limit on the rates paid to hospitals and doctors.

Howell said the workers’ comp program doesn’t have negotiated discounts with hospitals and doctors the way Medicaid and Medicare and private insurance companies do.

He said lawmakers are working on legislation to change that this session.

“It’s got to be resolved. It’s very expensive,” Howell said. “The costs are staggering to the business.”

The group of legislators—which included state Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford—said they would not back any effort to raise the minimum wage in Virginia, an issue of concern to at least one questioner from the audience.

“I don’t care what you raise it to, the economy is going to adjust and it will not be a living wage,” Cole said. “(It’s) one of these feel-good things that really doesn’t do anything.”

Bills are already starting to trickle in for the General Assembly’s 2014 session, which starts Jan. 8. This will be a “long” session, running 60 days instead of 45 days, as sessions do in odd-numbered years when lawmakers aren’t crafting a new budget.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028

cdavis@freelancestar.com

 

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