A Virginia House of Delegates committee today stunned legislative leaders by killing a bill that would have tightened the state's conflict-of-interest laws and forced lawmakers to disclose more information about sources of income.
Separately, the Virginia Senate passed a bill authorizing state Medicaid payments for abortions of pregnancies caused by rape or incest, but rejected a companion measure that would have funded abortions of seriously deformed fetuses. Proponents said the companion bill will be reconsidered Wednesday.
The conflict-of-interests bill, a much-amended response to charges that some lawyer-legislators have abused lawmaking powers by aiding their law practices and clients, was voted down 9 to 5 by the House Privileges and Elections Committee. The bill had been drawn and supported by some of the General Assembly's senior leaders, including House Speaker A.L. Philpott and Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews, but it died today, partly a victim of a squabble between its chief sponsor, Fairfax Sen. Adelard L. Brault, and Richmond Del. George E. Allen.
"I'm just shocked," said Brault, who said the bill's failure was proof that some Virginia lawmakers are unwilling to face the ethics issue. "It's just about impossible to do anything with conflict of interest here and it's been that way for years. The attitude is 'we're pure and we don't do these kinds of things.'"
Earlier in the session, Brault had accused Allen, a senior legislator who is also board chairman of one of Virginia's largest personal injury law firms, of "feathering his own nest" with a bill that would aid his clients in accident cases. Allen, in turn, pointed out that Brault's Fairfax law firm counts among its clients a number of major insurance companies -- potential losers under Allen's bill. Allen's bill passed but was vetoed by Gov. John N. Dalton.
Allen, chairman of the subcommittee that reviewed Brault's ethics bill, tacked on an amendment that would have required lawyer-legislators to report the number and give a general description of thier clients.
Allen voted for the bill, but some committee members said his last-minute amendment made it unacceptable. Still others said the committee, which is dominated by some of the lawyer-legislators most often criticized for alleged conflicts of interest, used Allen's amendment as an excuse to kill the measure.
The Senate's passage by 21 to 16 of the bill funding abortions for pregnancies due to rape or incest had been expected, but proponents were surprised by the failure of the companion bill funding abortions involving fetal deformities. It mustered only 16 yes votes. Some senators who switched votes on the second bill said they did so because of uncertainty over how seriously deformed a fetus should be to qualify for abortion.
"How do we define deformity?" asked Sen. Charles Colgan (D-Prince William), one of the bill's opponents. "A twisted arm or a twisted leg? Where do we draw the line?"
The two bills inspired some of the most heated and eloquent debate of this year's session. Proponents argued that denying the Nedicaid funding in rape or incest cases doubly punished crime victims, while foes argued the real victims were the unborn fetuses aborted with state funds.
The abortion bill passed today goes to Dalton, who last year vetoed a state Board of Health regulation suggesting similar funding and is expected to veto the measure.