- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The Virginia General Assembly is set to adjust the state’s ethics laws for the fourth straight year, as lawmakers continue struggling over what kind of gifts they can take from lobbyists and special interests.

This year’s efforts include clarifying that public officials cannot accept tickets to watch sporting events in luxury boxes and debating whether lobbyists who have a longstanding friendship with lawmakers should be able to give birthday and holiday gifts worth more than $100.

Spurred by a gift scandal that engulfed Gov. Bob McDonnell’s final year in office, lawmakers have been writing and rewriting state gift laws since 2014. The big pushes came that year and in 2015, when lawmakers settled on a $100 a year gift cap from lobbyists, businesses and others.

But lawmakers are still trying to figure out what exactly a “gift” means. Del. Todd Gilbert, the House’s point person on ethics legislation, said legislators want to find the right balance between upholding the public trust without making life so onerous for elected officials that no one wants to run for office. Putting that balance into code has so far been elusive.

“It’s hard to legislate common sense,” Gilbert said.

The row over luxury boxes is an example of those difficulties.

When lawmakers passed an ethics law in 2015, they publicly declared that the old days when special interests would woo lawmakers at luxury boxes at Washington Redskins’ games or other events were over. The gift cap has an exception for certain “widely attended” events of 25 or more under certain circumstances, which lawmakers intended for things like Rotary Club dinners or NAACP banquets that lawmakers are expected to attend.

But staff at a newly formed ethics council last year gave permission to a top aide to Gov. Terry McAuliffe to accept an invitation from the Washington Redskins to watch a playoff game from one of the team’s boxes, saying such an event qualified as a widely attended event. The team is in active discussions with state officials about building a new stadium in Virginia.

Republican lawmakers were in an uproar after The Associated Press first reported the gift. This year, both the House and the Senate have passed legislation aimed at tightening the law to exclude luxury boxes at sporting events. But the chambers so far remain in disagreement over gifts on special occasions from a lobbyist to lawmaker borne solely of friendship.

The Senate’s version would exempt lobbyists and others from the $100 gift cap where there is a “bona fide personal relationship” and the “circumstances demonstrate that the motivation for the gift” is out of friendship, not because of the lawmaker’s political position. The House makes no such exception for the gift cap.

McAuliffe’s spokesman Brian Coy said the governor will review whatever final bill lawmakers settle on. Coy said any changes in the law need to “make government more transparent and accountable, not less.”

The General Assembly has already killed an ethics reform McAuliffe said was a priority - banning the personal use of campaign funds.

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