The giving spree: The General Assembly swallows a bitter pill

Virginia's Capitol Building in Richmond. File photo. Virginia’s Capitol Building in Richmond. File photo.

Let us set the scene for you. As the Virginia General Assembly heads into the home stretch of its winter session, it has one currently incarcerated delegate legislating while on work release, another recent delegate serving a nine-and-a-half-year prison sentence for bribery and extortion and a former governor headed to the federal pen on multiple counts of corruption.

So you would think that, among the myriad issues facing Virginia’s august deliberative body, ethics reform would be high on the list. And indeed it is, but not necessarily because the Old Dominion’s elected officials want it there. In fact, as both chambers begrudgingly advanced a slightly-more-stringent version of last year’s watered-down regulations (which capped “tangible” gifts to lawmakers at $250, but did nothing to regulate “intangible” gifts such as travel, meals and entertainment), the levels of annoyance and disdain on display have been astounding to behold.

It’s not surprising that Virginia’s lawmakers—who have become accustomed to a never-ending gravy train of gifts and exotic junkets—would resent having to reign in their seemingly inexhaustible appetite for freebies. But the tone struck by many Assembly members while debating the new rules resembled that of a petulant child being forced to consume a giant bowl of brussel sprouts.

Even the sponsor of the Senate package, Majority Leader Tommy Norment, publicly groused that the only reason the Assembly was advancing this “bastardized piece of legislation” was “because the media is on our backs.” His sentiments were echoed by many of his Republican colleagues, including Spotsylvania’s Senator Bryce Reeves, who readily admitted that he and his fellow senators were only voting for the package “because we have the press that’s going to beat us over the head if we don’t.”

What made this tone-deaf display all the more baffling was the fact that the rules aren’t nearly as strict as they should be. Yes, the legislation reduces the cap on gifts to $100, and erases the idiotic distinction between “tangible” and “intangible” goodies, but the proposed enforcement mechanism is weak soup indeed. Whereas Governor Terry McAuliffe proposed that an independent ethics commission be set up to enforce the new rules, the bills passed by both chambers merely create an “advisory council” that will have neither investigative nor subpoena powers.

At the same time, Republicans voted down a transparency bill championed by Loudoun-area Democratic Senator Jennifer Wexton—a bill the Senate passed unanimously just last year. Wexton’s common-sense legislation simply disallows any taxpayer funds to be used by lawmakers for conferences or meetings that don’t make all agendas and conference materials available to the public.

On the plus side, the House of Delegates did advance a bill that would prohibit any lawmaker who is currently serving a criminal sentence from attending legislative sessions. (We’re looking at you, Delegate Joe Morrissey!) And the Senate, in a surprise move, also voted overwhelmingly to ban pet monkeys.

Unless, of course, said monkey is valued at less than $100 and is gifted to a member of the Assembly by the head of a large corporation. In that case, it will be officially designated an “honorary legislator,” and will be allowed to sit in Delegate Morrissey’s seat as soon as he leaves to spend the night in jail.

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