Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles said today that the state's conflict-of-interest law that he helped draft three years ago should be revised in the aftermath of a strict new interpretation of the measure.
That new opinion, from the state attorney general's office, has left the General Assembly in disarray, with legislators scrambling for a way to resolve a crisis that is preventing many legislators from voting on bills.
"If we don't resolve this, a lot of laws are going to go down the tubes for lack of people to vote on them," said Sen. William E. Fears (D-Accomac).
On Monday, the attorney general's office interpreted a 1984 Virginia Supreme Court ruling as prohibiting legislators from voting on any issue in which they have a personal financial interest.
Legislative leaders say the new interpretation of the state's conflict statute could bring the General Assembly to a standstill, with virtually every legislator prohibited from voting on some issue.
In both the House and Senate today, electronic voting boards lit up with dozens of abstentions as legislators sought to avoid any vote that might be questioned later.
"It's just bananas," said Del. Bernard S. Cohen (D-Alexandria). "Under that interpretation, everybody would have a conflict."
Baliles, who was attorney general when the conflict statute was revised in 1983 to include members of the General Assembly, said today that the law must be changed again. But he stopped short of suggesting revisions, saying the changes should be left up to the legislature and Attorney General Mary Sue Terry.
Baliles, a former legislator, strongly suggested that any new revision must make it clear that conflicts of interest will not be acceptable.
"I think I showed a concern then in the legislature , as I still do . . . . One ought to be very careful," Baliles told reporters when asked about the controversy.
Francis C. Lee, counsel to the state attorney general, shocked a House committee Monday when he said a 1984 decision by the state Supreme Court means, for example, that legislators who own even one share of stock in a bank should refrain from voting on any banking matters.
Late today, the Senate Rules Committee said it would call Lee to testify at a special hearing Wednesday.
Committee member Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) said he was concerned that the issue has been raised 14 months after the Supreme Court ruling, making many of the votes in last year's General Assembly "possibly criminal in nature."
Lee's announcement came as legislators already had been stung by the criminal prosecution of the Senate's fourth-ranking member, Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk), on conflict charges. The Babalas charges involve his vote to kill a bill that would have imposed tighter restrictions on second-mortgage companies, including one that paid him $61,000 in legal fees.
Babalas told his colleagues on the Senate Rules Committee, "You're going to have to meet it the conflict issue head on."
Lee's opinion heightened an already sensitive issue for the 140 members of the legislature, half of whom have significant ties to banking interests in the state.
Amid the concern, there also was humor.
Sen. John W. Russell (R-Fairfax) stolled into the Senate chambers wearing two hand-lettered paper signs reading, "No bank stock" and "I can vote."
In the House, a routine resolution hailing 100 years of dentistry in Virginia was sought by Del. Alan A. Diamonstein (D-Newport News).
"Are you the lawyer for the dental society?" asked Del. Ford Quillen (D-Gate City), chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee, which oversees ethical issues.
"No way," Diamonstein shouted back to general laughter.
Lawmakers said they expect any changes in the conflict-of-interest law to draw harsh scrutiny from critics who would interpret the changes as weakening the law.
Many legislators said they may be able to maneuver around the conflict law by toughening financial disclosure requirements for public officials.
"More disclosure may be the way. I have no problem with that," said Sen. J. Granger Macfarlane (D-Roanoke).
Lee's interpretation of the conflict law stems the state Supreme Court's November 1984 ruling that the mayor of Richmond, who also serves as a member of the City Council, could not vote on the selection of a new school superintendent because the mayor also was employed as a city school principal.
Although the court ruling was issued even before last year's legislative session, lawmakers virtually ignored its implications for members of the General Assembly until the Babalas case gained public attention.