Virginia lawmakers passed new gift limits Friday that will make it much more difficult for them to be wined and dined by deep-pocketed lobbyists.
Part of a wide-ranging ethics reform legislation passed includes a $100-a-year cap on gifts, including meals and entertainment, from lobbyists or others who have interests with the state.
The new law, which goes into effect next year, will mean far fewer freebies for lawmakers than they have accepted in past years. Those gifts have included scores of fancy dinners, trips to out-of-state casinos, hunting excursions and free tickets and travel to major sporting events.
"The whole concept of, you come down to Richmond" and "people buy your meals, people take you out to events, people give you tickets to ballgames, I think that whole culture is going to change," said Fairfax Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen.
Legislators were spurred to tighten Virginia's ethics laws by a gifts scandal involving former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. The former first couple were convicted last year on corruption charges for taking more than $165,000 in gifts and loans, including a Rolex watch and designer clothes, from a vitamin salesman in exchange for promoting his products.
Republican Del. Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County, who helped shepherd ethics legislation through the General Assembly, said he hopes the new law will restore public trust in elected officials.
"Human beings have broken bread to discuss the issues of the day since human beings first existed. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but I do think that in the wake of what's gone on in the past couple of years, the public wants us to do it much more differently, much more transparently and in a much more limited fashion," Gilbert said.
Democratic Del. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond said she didn't think lobbyists who frequently treated lawmakers will suffer for any lack of access. But she said life may be more "boring" for lawmakers who preferred their interactions with lobbyists to take place at sporting events or high-dollar restaurants.
"You'll be sitting in a conference room looking at a PowerPoint instead of sitting at a suite at NASCAR, but you'll get the same information," she said.
Lawmakers initially approved a $100-per-gift limit when they passed an ethics bill during the final minutes of the 2015 regular legislative session in February. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe amended the bill with the intent of changing the limit to $100 a year. Lawmakers had to use unusual procedural motions to clarify that the governor's amendment was per year and not a $100 lifetime cap.
Retiring Republican Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan County said he wished lawmakers had taken a year to study possible ethics reform proposals instead of acting this year in a rushed manner. Watkins said an unintended consequence of a gift cap may lead to a more partisan atmosphere. He said special interests could circumvent the $100 gift cap by throwing a political fundraising dinner and donating to political accounts where the gift limit doesn't apply. Virginia is one of a few states where politicians can accept unlimited political donations, and there are few restrictions on how campaign committees can spend money.
"The big guys are always going to live within the law and they're going to always find a way to influence," Watkins said.