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A call for a special session isn’t generating enthusiasm, for political and practical reasons.
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
In a perfect world, this year’s sad parade of ethical irregularities would inspire legislators to make haste to the state Capitol for a serious and expeditious rewrite of lax rules that now govern gifts to elected officials. But Virginians have been repeatedly reminded that their state and their leaders are far from perfect.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor, this week called for a special session to adopt ethics reforms, suggesting the task could be completed in a day or two.
That sounds wonderful, but back here in the reality of an election year, the results are likely to be less appealing. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election in November. Most senators are enjoying a mid-term snooze, but three of them are running for statewide office. In other words, the majority of lawmakers will be extra talkative, and plans for a short and sweet special session could easily devolve into a fruitless open-mike marathon.
Thus, it was no surprise when Cuccinelli’s idea was promptly smacked down by Gov. Bob McDonnell and House Speaker Bill Howell.
Both men have political reasons for their reluctance to host an ethics-palooza. McDonnell sparked the controversy by accepting luxury gifts and $120,000 in loans from Jonnie Williams Sr. The governor is also the subject of a federal investigation into his relationship with the business executive, who has a pending tax dispute with the state.
But there are practical considerations for a special session as well. There is no consensus on what reforms should be adopted, and it will be difficult to achieve agreement when the issue is the subject of debate in the gubernatorial contest.
Cuccinelli wants faster disclosure for gifts exceeding $500, and he would end a loophole that allows the family of an elected official to accept gifts without disclosure. He also would ban cash gifts and is willing to consider some cap on tangible items.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe wants to cap gifts at $100.
The larger unanswered questions center on proposals for an ethics commission. Who would sit on it? What power would it have to investigate accusations of wrong-doing? And, most crucial, what penalties could it impose for violations?
In five months, either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe will be governor-elect, and days away from inauguration. That man will have great influence in deciding those questions.
Meanwhile, Cuccinelli can still demonstrate his own urgency for ethics reform by reimbursing Williams for the $18,000 in gifts he received, including a $1,500 catered Thanksgiving dinner. (The American Farm Bureau Federation estimated last fall that a family of 10 can get a turkey fix for just $49.48.)
And state legislators can stay home and ask their constituents what reforms they’d like to see adopted come January. By then, Election Day will be over, and we hope they’ll be ready to stop talking and take action.
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