2015 Virginia Legislative Near Close With Ethics Rules

Virginia's 2015 legislative session is almost in the books.

Leaders in the House and Senate said they were close to adjournment Friday after reaching a tentative last-minute agreement on legislation aimed at tightening the state's ethics rules for public officials.

The ethics-reform proposal puts a $100 cap on gifts lawmakers can accept -- including meals, entertainment and travel -- from lobbyists and their clients, or others seeking to do business with the state. Lawmakers were spurred to reform the state's ethics rules following the conviction last year of former Gov. Bob McDonnell on corruption charges.

The ethics overhaul would take effect on Jan. 1, 2016 -- six months later than the standard July 1 date for new legislation and after the November election in which all 140 seats in the Assembly will be on the ballot.

"We wanted to be certain that all legislators and, frankly, candidates that may be running in the elections this fall have an opportunity to familiarize themselves with this,'' said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican from James City County and the Senate patron of the legislation.

Lawmakers also passed legislation Friday aimed at making sure allegations of sexual assault on university campuses are reported to local police and prosecutors. It requires that the information be reported to a campus review committee and, if it is found necessary to protect the health or safety of the victim or the public, passed on to the police immediately.

The measure came largely in response to a widely publicized case of alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia last year in which a magazine described the university as having a culture that did little to prevent sexual assaults. Much of the story was later discredited.

This year's two-month legislative session was probably most notable for what it lacked: a single high-profile, hot-button issue such as Medicaid expansion, transportation funding or any of the other contentious topics that have dominated lawmakers' debates in past years.

Instead, Republican leaders in the GOP-Controlled General Assembly tried to focus on what they called "kitchen table'' issues, such as trying to reduce fees for college students or increasing pay for state workers and teachers.

After years of failed attempts, lawmakers passed legislation giving local school boards authority to let home-schooled students participate in public-school sports. And lawmakers directed the state Board of Education to develop statewide regulations reining in the use of seclusion and restraint as methods of controlling children in public schools.

The General Assembly passed, and the governor has signed, Virginia's first effective medical marijuana legislation. The measure allows possession of two oils derived from the marijuana plant with written certification by a doctor that they are needed for treatment of intractable epilepsy.

Joining an overwhelming majority of states, the General Assembly passed legislation assuring that a mother can breastfeed her baby in any place where she is lawfully present.

Second-year Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has said he is pleased that many of his top priorities have passed this session.

But the governor's attempt to put new gun-control laws into place, including a one-handgun-a-month purchase limit, failed.

And with no debate or recorded vote, the House killed a key recommendation of an ethics advisory panel appointed by McAuliffe last year: taking the job of drawing legislative district lines away from the General Assembly and turning it over to an independent, bipartisan commission.

In an unexpected rebuff to the McAuliffe administration, the House defeated legislation that would have allowed companies providing drugs for lethal-injection executions to keep their identities and the drugs' components secret.

McAuliffe has already signed into law a bill sponsored by Virginia Beach Republican Sen. Frank Wagner that freezes regular rate reviews for the state's two largest electric utilities. Dominion Virginia Power said the new law will help protect customers from potentially higher rates associated with pending federal carbon-emission rules. Attorney General Mark Herring said the law hurts consumers.

With support from lawmakers across the political spectrum, the General Assembly passed several measures aimed at reining in the power of police to carry out surveillance on citizens.

The bills would prohibit police from keeping data collected by automatic license plate readers for more than seven days and require a warrant for the use of drones and devices called stingrays, which are used to track cellphone data.

"The whole point of this legislation,'' said Sen. Chap Petersen, a Fairfax Democrat, "is that you can't just track people without cause. You can't track their movements, you can't hold data on people, you can't collect data when you have no cause to do it.''

To replace "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,'' which was retired in 1997 because of its nostalgic references to slavery, the Assembly adopted two new official state songs: "Our Great Virginia,'' a version of the folk song "Oh Shenandoah'' updated with new lyrics, as the traditional state song, and "Sweet Virginia Breeze'' as the popular state song.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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