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01.20.15 -- Despite Scandals, Virginia Lawmakers Struggle With Proposed Limits On Gifts

Members of Virginia's General Assembly are talking about creating new limitations on gifts to elected officials. But reforming the system might not be as easy as making a few simple changes.

During the corruption trial of Republican former Gov. Bob McDonnell, jurors heard about a wealthy businessman treating the first family to flights on his corporate jet, designer clothing and rounds of golf at an exclusive private course. Now that McDonnell is on his way to a federal prison, members of the Republican-controlled General Assembly are talking about tightening ethics laws in the commonwealth.

"I think the people back home sometimes don't understand how we can be lavished with these gifts," says House Speaker Bill Howell, a Republican. "We're not in this thing for the gifts. We are in this thing for public policy."

One proposal would be to close a loophole that allows for unlimited gifts of meals and travel, a category defined in the law as "intangible gifts." Another proposal would create a new $100 limit on gifts, an idea that Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin says is a long time coming.

"It's outrageous that in the past we've had members take corporate jets to golf tournaments or actually go on safaris out of the country," says Ebbin, who represents parts of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County.

But creating a new $100 gift limit — on tangible or intangible gifts — would come with its own set of challenges.

Democratic Del. Mark Keam represents Tysons Corner, where he goes to about three events each week. "If I'm at the Ritz-Carlton, a dinner might be over $100 but if I'm at the Marriott down the street it might be $50," he says.

That means he might be in a position where he tells one organization he can attend their event but declines an invitation from another. "I would be concerned about having a flat bright line test that would put the onus on us as members to try to figure this out," he says.

One potential exemption lawmakers are talking about would allow legislators to attend widely attended events such as the agribusiness dinner that happened last week.