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Legislature returns Friday to fix glitch in ethics bills

Gov. McAuliffe, right, walks with leadership of House and Senate, including, front-back: Del. C. Todd Gilbert, Sen. Janet Howell, Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, and Sen. Ryan McDougle (Photo by Bob Brown)

Posted: Wednesday, April 15, 2015 8:30 pm

The Virginia General Assembly has delayed until Friday a vote on a series of amendments proposed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe designed to clarify and tighten new rules on gifts and the conduct of state and local public officials.

The holdup Wednesday as the legislature reconvened was over the proposed $100 aggregate cap on gifts that a lawmaker can receive each calendar year. As it turned out, the governor’s proposed amendment could be interpreted to be a lifetime limit, rather than an annual limit.

While most lawmakers support a gift cap, it takes some procedural hurdles to fix the error in the governor’s proposed language.

“We all agree on it and we’re ready to do it now, but the Senate asked for some more time,” said Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, who sponsored the House version of the omnibus ethics bill.

A rarely used legislative procedure puts the legislation back in amendable state to allow changes in language before both chambers vote on it Friday. The measure then heads back to the governor’s desk.

Compromise, bipartisan legislation passed by the House and Senate at the close of the 45-day session in late February called for a renewable $100 gift limit — meaning officials could receive an unlimited number of gifts from the same source as long as they did not exceed $100 at any given time.

Before the House and the Senate convened at noon Wednesday, McAuliffe met with Democratic caucus members of both chambers to lobby for his amendments.

On his way out, he told reporters that he felt comfortable “that we have the votes for the $100 aggregate, which I think would be probably the biggest news coming out today.”

After lawmakers dealt with most of the business involving the governor’s vetoes and proposed amendments to other legislation, McAuliffe invited Democratic and Republican leaders from both chambers to the Executive Mansion around 6:30 p.m. following a reception on the mansion lawn for retiring lawmakers.

The issue was the process by which the legislature would agree to the gift cap amendment proposed by the administration, in particular the $100 gift cap.

The potential discrepancy led some lawmakers to argue for prolonging action on the ethics package until January, when a special session could be called to address the amendment glitch. Another argument in favor of the extension was the fact that the new law was not scheduled to take effect until Jan. 1.

Others, including the McAuliffe administration, offered a parliamentary fix that could resolve the amendment in the reconvened session or, failing that, the opportunity to immediately convene a special session of the legislature after the reconvened session adjourned in order to take up a new, corrected amendment addressing the gift cap ambiguity.

In addition to the change in the $100 cap, the governor said additional proposed amendments to the ethics bill close a loophole that would allow a gift exemption for a “widely attended event” to be used to escort lawmakers to posh outings like the Super Bowl or Masters Golf Tournament.

The governor also proposed an amendment that would require members of state boards and commissions to not vote on issues that can directly benefit them, their families or their businesses.