On the Senate floor Monday afternoon, Democrats and Republicans joined together to pass SB 649, the omnibus ethics reforms package. On the Senate floor, Democratic Senators argued that the measured represented an imperfect but necessary first step towards regaining the public’s trust. The bill passed 39-1 with Senator John Watkins (R-Powhatan) dissenting.
Among other reforms, the bill would create an ethics advisory council, increase the frequency of disclosure filings, cap the acceptable value of single gifts from lobbyists to legislators, and reduce the disclosure thresholds for various economic interests from $10,000 to $5,000.
As introduced, SB 649 has been the subject of editorial criticism for not doing enough to create meaningful reforms. Democratic senators introduced several amendments designed to strengthen the package and address those concerns.
Senator Adam Ebbin (D – Alexandria) attached amendments that would require that the new ethics advisory council be made up of former, rather than current, legislators. Sen. Ebbin also offered several other amendments that failed to pass.
Senator A. Donald McEachin (D – Henrico) offered amendments to deny legislators reimbursement for the cost of attending conferences and meetings unless the agendas and materials from those meetings are made public. The amendments garnered bipartisan support, passing by voice vote.
Senator Chap Petersen (D – Fairfax) offered amendments to clarify the definition of “personal friend” for the purposes of disclosure exemptions. The amendments were adopted on a 21-20 vote, with Lt. Governor Ralph Northam breaking the tie.
Senator McEachin said, “I do not feel that this bill accomplishes everything that it could or should. I’m gratified that the Senate accepted my amendment, but I believe there is still much more to do. Recent events have profoundly shaken the public’s faith in our government, and we have to do something to regain their trust. A first step is better than no step at all, and I appreciate the bipartisan efforts involved here. I’m hopeful that we can continue to work on ethics reform and not see this as any kind of final project.”
Senator Petersen said, “”Even with all the work done over the past few months, we still needed to get basic items correct such as the definition of ‘personal friend’ in the legislation.”
Senator Ebbin said, “This solution falls short, especially for a major bill that’s been discussed for months. I tried to tighten this bill today, and I think there are things we’ll have to change in the future. But one of our goals today is to rebuild and expand public confidence in our government. There is absolutely no reason for members of the General Assembly to accept free trips on corporate jets to sporting events or safaris. This bill has a lot of room for improvement, but it is a start.”
Democratic co-patrons of the measure were Senator Kenneth Alexander, Senator Adam Ebbin, Senator John Edwards, Senator Barbara Favola, Senator Chap Petersen, Senator George Barker, Senator Mamie Locke, Senator David Marsden and Majority Leader Dick Saslaw.