Report From Richmond: Week 5

I was given the opportunity to write a series of articles for the Leesburg Today, detailing the legislative highlights of the 2015 General Assembly Session. 

As Senator Wexton mentioned in her article last week, the General Assembly reached its halftime last week and by midnight Feb. 10, both houses completed their work on all bills originating in their respective chambers and sent over approved bills to the other chamber. Roughly, only one in every three bills survives this crossover.

The two days before crossover are generally the longest ones due in large part to the fact that the standing committees reviewing and marking up complex or controversial legislation keep working on these bills until their last pre-crossover meeting and then either table them or send them to the floor. Thus, these last two days before crossover will see both houses dealing with their most difficult bills. There is one bill, however, that is granted an additional two days before its crossover deadline, namely the annual Budget Bill.

As soon as crossover is done, the Budget Bill comes to the floor and is debated and amended and then sent over to the Senate. All of this makes for a long and productive Week Five in the General Assembly. In this installment, I will touch on some of these bills and then give a brief overview of the approved Budget Bill.

First, let’s discuss the Omnibus Ethics Reform Bill that was reported out of the House Ethics Subcommittee I chair. An omnibus bill is one that amends a series of statutes and enacts a comprehensive change in existing public policy. While review and mark-up of omnibus bills takes much more time than other bills, it also presents greater opportunities for creating meaningful reform and bipartisanship. This year, the House Ethics Subcommittee considered a number of bills, equally divided between Republican and Democratic proposals, and then incorporated the best ideas presented into HB 2070, the broadest scope bill that became the vessel for our comprehensive ethics and gift disclosure reform effort. My draft ethics reform bill, HB 1689, and seven others were incorporated into HB 2070 and this bill passed by a unanimous vote out of the Ethics Subcommittee and was passed by the House of Delegates on a strong 93-6 vote. Lawmakers are not entitled to the public trust; it must be earned. Over the past two years, that trust has been shaken in Virginia. While the recent issues involving Gov. and Mrs. McDonnell only involved the Executive Branch, we all believed that it was the right time to strengthen the ethics and gift disclosure laws regulating the Legislative Branch.

The Omnibus Ethics Bill creates a $100 gift cap and significantly strengthens the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council created in 2014. It should be noted that this $100 cap goes further than the $250 gift cap proposed by Gov. McAuliffe late last year. This legislation also limits the “personal friend” exemption on allowed gifts to exclude personal friends who have or are seeking business relationships with state or local government and abolishes the distinction between tangible and intangible gifts, such as tickets to sporting events and travel. Last year’s ethics bill enacted a $250 cap on tangible gifts but was silent as to intangible gifts. HB 2070 also prohibits the governor from accepting campaign contributions from companies seeking grants from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund. Additionally, this bill gives oversight powers to the council to determine what are and what are not appropriate legislative travel expenses. I doubt you will see any legislators claiming that tickets to the Masters golf tournament or an expense-paid fly fishing trip to Montana are legitimate legislative educational expenses. Lastly, this new legislation will require that lawmakers must submit financial disclosure forms online twice a year so the council can easily post them in a searchable database for public review. In sum, I think that the Omnibus Ethics Bill achieved our goals for more transparency, a higher standard of ethics, and greater accountability by those who hold positions of public trust.

As mentioned, the tough bills in both chambers seem to come up right before crossover and this year, the Senate sent over a number of bills that fit into this category. One such bill was SB 1349, a bill proposed by our commonwealth’s largest electrical utility, that has been called both the “Ratepayers Protection Act” and the “Dominion Power Regulatory Exemption Act”. Surprisingly, both nicknames are appropriate and indicate the inherent trade-offs in the bill. On the positive side, the bill prohibits Dominion from increasing its base electrical rates through the end of 2019 and requires Dominion to make a much-needed investment in solar energy production. On the negative side, it bars the State Corporation Commission from reviewing Dominion’s books and directing ratepayer refunds if it finds undue profiteering. Dominion argued successfully that these tradeoffs yielded a net positive to Virginia and its bill cleared the Senate on a 32-6 vote and then two days after crossover cleared the House on a 72-24 vote. I could not support this bill and joined the minority in opposing it. To me, Virginia law empowers the SCC to have oversight over regulated monopolies such as Dominion for a reason and I simply did not think it was wise for the General Assembly to exempt one from this oversight despite the positive attributes of the deal offered.

Lastly, I am happy to report that both the House and the Senate approved versions of the Budget Bill with few real differences and without the partisan rancor we saw last summer. Improving economic news allowed for funding to be provided for teacher and public safety officer pay raises, a larger security deposit into our commonwealth’s “Rainy Day Fund,” additional in-state slots for our public universities, new funding for community college transfers into our four-year public universities, funding for key authorized judgeships, and other identified priorities. The Budget Bill also eliminates $10.2 million in fees charged by the commonwealth to our citizens and actually reduces state spending in aggregate by a billion dollars over what was approved in the 2014-2016 Biennium Budget adopted last year. The level of bicameral harmony involved in this year’s Budget Bill is so great that I heard today that the General Assembly may even adjourn two days earlier than our targeted Feb. 28 adjournment date.

See you in two weeks for our final report

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