The Virginia House, setting the stage for a potentially bitter fight with the Senate, today gave preliminary approval to a bill that would weaken the state's conflict-of-interest law.
The bill, which in one controversial section eliminates jail terms and reduces fines from $1,000 to $500 for some violations of the ethics law, was approved by voice vote.
It is expected to pass the House formally on Sunday and be sent to the Senate, where it faces a tough review by senators embarrassed over the criminal conflict-of-interest charges facing a senior member there.
The House action capped several weeks of maneuvering over the ethics bill, which has disrupted this session of the legislature.
Lawmakers initially were seeking to revise a portion of the ethics law to overturn what they said was an overly strict interpretation of the measure by the state Supreme Court.
The House vote came amid a weekend of legislative frenzy as members rushed to meet a midsession deadline. Both chambers are to finish work originated in their chambers by Tuesday, except for the $18.5 billion biennial budget, which is scheduled to be acted on next weekend.
The vote on ethics today came after about 45 minutes of discussion during which lawmakers burst into applause after Del. Clinton Miller (D-Shenandoah) scolded the news media for what he said were efforts to "inflame the public" over the issue.
Miller was the author of the amendment that reduced penalties under the bill.
The bill would apply to local governments in the state, many of which already have stronger ethics and financial disclosure requirements.
In addition to the reduced penalties, the proposed House bill would make it more difficult to determine when a conflict had occurred. It would allow, but not require, each chamber to set up an ethics panel composed of legislators to advise each other on when a member's personal interests may force the member to abstain. Such advice, if proven wrong later, would bar prosecution of the member.
No one spoke against the bill today, although several House members warned in committee that the revised measure may not improve public confidence in the assembly.
Del. Theodore V. Morrison Jr. (D-Newport News), the chief architect of the House version of the ethics bill, insisted that "for whatever criticism" it received, "a reasonable and fair-minded person" would conclude the proposed bill is "more constitutional than what we have in the law."
The lawmakers' debate has focused more on fears of unknowingly violating the law rather than efforts to catch willful violators.
Supporters of the changes contend lawmakers serve only part-time and that the potential for conflicts are a necessary part of maintaining a "citizens legislature" whose members earn their liveihood elsewhere.
"This will not solve all the problems," Morrison said. He said no bill could anticipate all the conflicts over "issues that come as varied as the stars and as quickly as the wind."
In a related action, a House committee today approved a bill limiting interest rate "points" that can be charged on second mortgages. The bill is similar to one that was killed last year by a Senate committee and now figures in the criminal conflict-of-interest charges pending against state Sen. Peter K. Babalas. Babalas is accused of accepting fees from the now-bankrupt Landbank Corp. in return for blocking the bill.
Since Friday, committees have disgorged hundreds of bills as the assembly pushed to meet its Tuesday deadline, when each chamber must complete action on its own bills. The Senate, with a smaller calendar to complete, took the weekend off.
"It's Chinese Checkers around here," said Del. Alson H. Smith Jr. (D-Winchester) as House members dashed from one committee meeting to another this morning.
On Friday night, the powerful House Courts of Justice Committee staged its annual Night of the Long Knives, a three-hour session during which many bills were killed with little discussion.
Speaking in rapid-fire legislative jargon, members Reported (approved), Passed by Indefinitely (killed) or Carried Over (put off until next year) dozens of bills.
The committee began its night session with more than 160 bills on its docket but narrowed it to about 100, with still more axed or approved this morning.
One measure that died quickly Friday night was a bill to bar civil suits against doctors who refuse to change the cause of death on death certificates.
A state official of vital records said such requests usually are made by embarrassed survivors of patients who die of some sexually transmitted or other stigmatized illnesses. The official said some family members threaten to sue if the cause of death is not changed. Committee members indicated it was no more than an isolated problem and went on to other bills.
The conflicts issues came up in several forms.
Del. Frank D. Hargrove (D-Henrico), an insurance executive, wondered aloud about pending debates on insurance matters. "I don't know whether I can participate or not," Hargrove said before jumping into a committee debate.
The House Committee on Corporations, Insurance and Banking approved a bill that would allow local governments to stem the rising costs of liability insurance by allowing the governments to pool resources to insure themselves.