RICHMOND — In a frenzied final push late Friday, the General Assembly came to an agreement on the knotty issues of campus sexual assaults and ethics legislation — and managed to end the 2015 session one day ahead of schedule.
In marathon meetings of the House and Senate, legislators agreed on a bill that would involve law enforcement in more campus sexual assault cases. A deal on ethics proved harder to reach, even though the overhaul had been in the works since former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) was convicted of corruption in September. That legislation got back on track late Friday night, with both chambers voting to cap gifts to public officials at $100.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said the ethics legislation had been “imperiled” over the past 24 hours, with the Senate worried about “feeding the public perception that we’re all crooks somehow, which we are not.”
Having passed the state budget ahead of schedule Thursday, legislators rushed to complete the rest of their work on Friday. The early wrap-up — the first in 15 years — was a key goal of Republican leaders seeking to highlight how well the GOP, which has long dominated the House, has governed since taking control of the Senate last summer.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) declared it “one of the best sessions” and touted the early finish as well as work on transportation, health care for the mentally ill, education reform and support for veterans.
“We can work together,” he said. “I think we’re a model for the country.”
Legislators began the day with some of the biggest bills of the year still in conference, but they were feeling optimistic that the end was near. Even an on-time conclusion on Saturday would have been a vast improvement over last year, when a standoff over Medicaid expansion delayed passage of the budget until June.
By afternoon, the chambers had agreed on a measure about how colleges should handle campus sexual assaults. The issue became a priority after the abduction and slaying of University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham, 18. The man charged in that case, Jesse L. Matthew Jr., was also accused more than a decade ago of two sexual assaults at other schools — Liberty University in Lynchburg and Christopher Newport University in Newport News — but no charges were filed.
Lawmakers originally called for requiring that all campus sexual assaults be reported to local police. But they backed down amid strong opposition from survivors and college administrators, who said that victims would be deterred from seeking help. They decided that when student safety seemed to be at risk, the assault would have to be reported to law enforcement, even if the victim did not want to go to police.
Both chambers also passed legislation adding a mark to academic transcripts to indicate when a student has been suspended or expelled or has withdrawn while under investigation for a code violation.
For weeks, the two chambers remained at odds over who would decide when an alleged sexual assault must be reported — law enforcement or a school official tasked with enforcing federal Title IX nondiscrimination law. On Friday, the chambers agreed that the Title IX official would decide if confidentiality must be violated for student safety. A team that includes law enforcement, the Title IX coordinator and a student affairs representative also would be required to tell law enforcement if they believe a felony rape was committed on campus.
Domestic violence and rape crisis counselors, as well as clergy, would still not be required to report an assault.
Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) said lawmakers did not get “weak-kneed” on a thorny issue. “In this bill, we go as far as we can under federal law,” she said.
Also Friday, lawmakers passed stricter regulations on home-based day-care centers in response to a string of children’s deaths reported in a Washington Post investigation.
After hours of hemming and hawing that earned them a stern visit from House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), Senate Republicans gave in and passed an ethics overhaul that caps gifts at $100. Free travel that exceeds that amount could be accepted, but only if it serves a policy purpose and is approved beforehand from a new ethics council. McAuliffe had called for the council to have subpoena power, but the legislature only gave it the authority to issue advise legislators.
The General Assembly took a first swing at reform last year, after McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were indicted in a scandal that involved taking $177,000 in luxury gifts, vacations and loans from a Richmond businessman. It capped personal gifts from lobbyists or anyone seeking to do business with the state at $250 a year. However, the gift cap was applied only to lobbyists, lobbying principals or anyone who has or is seeking a contract with the state. In addition, lawmakers last year put no limit on “intangible gifts,” such as meals and trips.
After the McDonnells were convicted, legislators vowed to tighten rules further. They closed the “intangible” gift loophole and lowered the gift limit to $100 — though givers are free to give a succession of items over the course of a year.
The bill also exempts from the $100 gift ban any food or drink lawmakers consume while attending events at which they are “performing duties related to [their] public service.”
Also Friday, the House and Senate passed compromise legislation intended to reduce the influence of politics on the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. The bill, which was crafted with McAuliffe’s recommendations, would change the full-time three-member board of commissioners to a part-time five-member board. Commissioners’ annual salaries would be cut from more than $120,000 plus benefits to $17,640, matching delegates’ base salaries.
The governor would still appoint commissioners and the chief executive, subject to General Assembly approval, but under the bill, the governor could fire them only for cause. The bill, to take effect in 2018, also sets minimum job qualifications for commissioners and the chief executive.
“It’s not exactly what I wanted, but I think it’s pretty darn good,” said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who filed the legislation with Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover).