A loftier vision for public service

Published 2:49 pm Friday, April 3, 2015

As the Governor of Virginia, I am deeply concerned that so many Virginians have lost faith in their leaders.

Our constituents do not believe their own voices are being heard at the state Capitol. Instead, they fear that their representatives are being swayed by sports tickets and fancy dinners handed out by high-powered lobbyists.

In communities across the Commonwealth, that cozy culture is hard to understand and impossible to accept.

On Friday, I completed my work on the 800 bills sent to me by the 2015 General Assembly for action.

I have given particularly careful attention to the hurried compromise on ethics reached in the final hours of the legislative session.

Within minutes of adjournment, several members cautioned me that the bill would require extensive technical revisions.

I have offered amendments that address those errors, but I also have made changes to the substance of the bill.

As I have already stated, this is an imperfect bill.

The amendments I proposed will not make it a perfect bill, but they will make this legislation stronger.

My focus with these amendments is to provide an emphatic cap on gifts to state and local employees and legislators.

I believe an aggregate limit of $100 annually is necessary for meaningful reform.

The General Assembly’s ethics bill proposes a $100 cap per gift, which means a legislator may accept free meals from the same lobbyist every day of the year.

This can scarcely be characterized as progress.

In fact, it creates a new loophole and a conspicuous retreat from authentic reform.

Studies have concluded that the ethics bill passed during the legislative session would permit the vast majority of all gifts reported in 2014, including the majority of gifts from lobbyists.

Worse, analyses warn that the elimination of an aggregate cap would allow an increase in gifts to legislators.

The proposed bill is inconsistent with and inferior to the executive order that I signed into law establishing clear boundaries in the form of a $100 aggregate gift cap for members of my administration.

My staff and I have lived with this aggregate cap for 14 months, and I hope it will be reassuring for legislators to know that it has not created any administrative burdens.

Building on this key improvement to the gift cap, I proposed a series of additional amendments to the ethics bill.

My amendments prohibit any gift to legislators from individuals seeking a contract with state government.

Out of concern that ambiguous language in the bill could exempt expensive tickets to national sporting events like the Super Bowl, I provide a clearer definition for widely attended events, which are not covered by the gift limit.

This exemption should be narrowly tailored to include only civic events and similar occasions clearly related to an official’s public duties.

My amendments require that official travel paid for by third parties be reported even if those trips are approved and exempted from the gift cap.

I also broaden the authority of the Virginia Conflict of Interests and Ethics Advisory Council so that it has the power to conduct random, semi-annual inspections of public reports to ensure compliance with rules on disclosure, gift limits, accuracy and deadlines.

Finally, my amendments prohibit members of boards and commissions from voting on issues in cases where they or family members have a conflict of interests.

This is a commonsense reform that should have been law decades ago.

The amendments I offered are motivated by a desire for sensible and honest change.

Weak ethics laws undermine trust in those of us who were given the responsibility of governance.

And weak ethics laws undermine economic development by placing a blemish on our Commonwealth’s good name.

My Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government will resume its work this year, and I urge its members to move forward with new advice on ethics and other ideas in support of good government.

I am disappointed by the grudging attitudes shown toward reform by some who feel they are being persecuted by the press.

The prestige of elected office should not be measured by the frequency with which one is wined and dined by special interests seeking to influence votes on public policy.

Surely we can all agree on a higher vision for public service.

When I announced my ethics reform legislation late last year, it offered a loftier goal than the one that reached my desk.

I remain convinced that stronger measures are needed, including a ban on fundraising during special legislative sessions and an independent ethics commission with subpoena powers.

But from the beginning of my term, I was under no illusion that there would be an easy cure for our weak ethics rules.

I took the first step forward when I signed Executive Order 2.

This year, I focused on addressing the gift cap, the most pressing deficiency in the ethics legislation now pending.

I am firmly committed to taking a meaningful step forward on ethical government every year of my term until we reach our goal.

I assure you this is not my final step.

Do not mistake my frustration for fatigue.

I will not be content until this task is complete.

Terry McAuliffe is the Governor of Virginia. This column first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.