In an alarming effort to make their 1986 session singularly disgraceful, Virginia's lawmakers have spent the better part of their public time in Richmond ripping apart what few standards of conduct govern their performances as elected officials.
First in the House of Delegates and now in the Senate, the legislators have turned an opening display of moral self-consciousness into two shameful versions of a license to steal. They are so bad that no combination of their provisions should be allowed into law -- and if it takes a veto from Gov. Baliles to kill it, that should be considered a public service.
The lawmakers' grand show of hypocrisy began as the session did, with uncertainty about interpretations of existing conflict-of-interest laws. But at that point, the concern was that too strict a reading by the attorney general would mean lawmakers couldn't vote on much of anything that was even remotely related to their off-session occupations and interests.
The idea then was to get an official interpretation and to come up with legal language that would make it work. Many voters even hoped for better disclosure requirements, which would let the public know just what financial interests each legislator does have -- before potential conflicts do arise.
But the House made a mockery of the whole business, voting instead to eliminate jail terms and reduce fines for all but the worst violations -- and to make it even more difficult to determine when a conflict occurs. This week, the Senate -- with a little help from Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in one tie-breaking instance -- succeeded in enacting an even worse version that would give Virginia one of the weakest conflict-of-interest laws in the country.
The Senate bill not only would exempt lawmakers from criminal prosecution, but also would shield local government officials from much of the state's current law. Two attempts to amend and improve the proposal, one by Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. of Fairfax and another by Sen. Wiley Mitchell of Alexandria, were rejected -- Mr. Mitchell's on a tie-breaking vote by Lt. Gov. Wilder. (All Northern Virginia senators except John H. Chichester of Stafford and Charles I. Colgan of Prince William voted against the weakened ethics bill).
"You're making this a place where we can all use our vote to get rich," shouted Sen. Gartlan, terming the action a "field day for lining our pockets." It is no way to operate, and no way for a new governor to have to begin getting things done in Richmond. Gov. Baliles should make it his business -- not to mention the business of the electorate -- to veto any version of this legislation that might come to his desk.