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Terry McAuliffe’s strong steps on ethics reform

Virginia’s new governor has taken strong and important steps to force the state into much-needed ethics reform by issuing an executive order setting a gift acceptance cap of $100 for himself, his staff and members of state agencies.

He’s also allocating $100,000 to set up a state ethics commission to collect information on gift-giving and probe transgressions, although details of how it would work are still hazy.

McAuliffe is performing an obvious and needed end run past the General Assembly, which for years has done as little a possible to address Virginia’s laissez-faire ethics rules — among the most lax in the nation.

The proposal by a group of legislators, after months of scandal involving former governor Robert F. McDonnell and Star Scientific, a dietary supplement maker, is lame at best.

Pushed by Virginia House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville), the proposal would ban officials and family members from accepting gifts of more than $250.

It also would set up a “watchdog” commission to “advise” officials on ethics but would have no investigative power, making it little more than window-dressing. As now, officials would have to file reports but no one would be tasked with officially vetting them.

McAuliffe’s smart ploy takes the initiative away from the General Assembly, although his executive order cannot address what elected officials do. That’s obviously a problem, but McAuliffe has raised the bar and legislators cannot ignore that.

I’ve been reporting on Virginia politics off and on since the 1970s, and I’ve seen several ethics-reform initiatives come to nothing.

This time, there is hope, thanks to McAuliffe, who is making a surprisingly strong showing in his first days in elected office.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.