What began in Richmond as a sober debate about legislative conflicts of interest has turned into a circus of interesting conflicts. The danger now is that a coalition of the panicked and the pernicious might wreck what standards of ethics do exist. Attorney General Mary Sue Terry could help matters by issuing a clearer interpretation of what's already on the books. Then the lawmakers could work out legislative refinements and -- here's the important part -- enact stronger disclosure provisions.

Yesterday a house of delegates committee killed one awful idea that had come up in the wave of overreaction to difficulties with the current law. Some house members had proposed to exempt state lawmakers from criminal prosecution for violating certain provisions of the law. That was a poor answer: it would have set legislators above everyone else.

Another unhelpful proposal still being considered would provide that the separate houses discipline their own errant members. Not only is this off the point -- which is to define uniformly what a conflict of interest is -- but it also could lead to different standards for the two houses.

What is needed is a single approach along the lines suggested by a state senate subcommittee. A lawmaker should abstain from voting on a measure when it would have "specific application" to his or her personal financial interests.

Fine. How about some help from the attorney general -- some better definition of what the law does or doesn't allow now? Then, before legislators walk away from the subject, detailed disclosure provisions should be added. When people know what financial interests a legislator has, any conflicts are much easier for everyone to detect.