Friday, July 19, 2013

A reply to Bearing Drift: Reforming Virginia's gift laws


In recent years there has been a trend in Virginia's blogosphere to simply ignore the opposition, to pretend they simply aren't there. But every now and then an issue arises that creates consensus and warrants real discussion. The need to reform Virginia's political gift laws is just such an issue.

This morning, Bearing Drift's Brian Schoeneman wrote on the subject of "Reforming our Gift Disclosure Laws." Schoeneman makes several commendable suggestions that are worth considering. I would like to add a few points to Mr. Schoeneman's list.

1) We need to distinguish between gifts and reimbursements. If a government official or legislator needs to travel to an industrial site to investigate whether a proposed use is safe or not, I have no problem with the business owner reimbursing the state for a reasonable amount for travel, lodging, and meals. Reimbursements have no lasting residual value. Once a government official or legislator returns from a fact-finding trip, they should have no lasting benefit except for the information gained on the trip. That's Reimbursement.

2) Outright Gifts to Elected Officials and their families should be banned. Gifts to elected officials and legislators in Virginia ought to be banned, with only a few exceptions. Definition is key here. The definition of "gifts" should not include awards of $500 or less consisting of a plaque or framed certificate. Such awards obviously cost money, but they have no value beyond their display on the recipient's wall. The definition of gift also should not include "reimbursements" as noted in point #1 above. It is reasonable for legislators to accept reimbursement for their travel, room, and board when investigating issues before the General Assembly. Elected officials and legislators should not be allowed to accept cash gifts compensating them for their time or providing any lasting or residual economic benefit.

Sometimes the best way to illustrate a point is to provide examples.

Examples

A) A company wants to mine uranium in Virginia. It pays airfare to fly elected officials and legislators to the locality of the proposed mine, puts the officials and legislators up in a local hotel, and pays a car service to drive them to the site of the proposed mine. At the end of the tour, they are given a 40 page report on the benefits of uranium mining and driven to the airport and flown home. There is nothing at all wrong with this scenario. While I oppose uranium mining in Virginia, I have no problem with my elected representatives learning more about the subject.

B) Similar scenario. A company wants to mine uranium in Virginia. It pays airfare to fly elected officials and legislators to the locality of the proposed mine, puts the officials and legislators up in a luxury hotel, and gives each legislator the keys and title to a brand new luxury automobile so they can drive themselves to the site of the proposed mine. At the end of the tour, they are given $25,000 in cash to compensate them "for their time." They drive their brand new luxury automobiles to the airport, and are flown home, while their new cars are transported to their homes, free of charge. I have all kinds of problems with this scenario, but under current Virginia law, it is perfectly legal.

Under current Virginia law, there is no distinction between reimbursement for reasonable expenses on fact-finding trips and outright gifts of cash, clothing, watches, loans, or any other benefit someone cares to give to an elected official or legislator in Virginia. The time has come to put reasonable reporting requirements on reimbursements and an outright ban on gifts.

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