RICHMOND, Va. - A Senate committee on Friday rejected legislation that would have imposed a little more transparency on Virginia lawmakers, who spent about $95,000 in taxpayer money on travel last year.
The Rules Committee voted 13-2 to kill Sen. A. Donald McEachin's proposal to prohibit the state from compensating or reimbursing the expenses of legislators who attend conferences that do not make their agenda or materials readily available to the public.
Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, said it's best for the Senate to police itself and avoid trying to tell the House of Delegates how to handle its members' travel expenses. McEachin, D-Henrico, countered that it's entirely appropriate for the Senate to regulate the expenditure of public funds.
The lawmaker whose $5,688 in taxpayer-funded trips last year was the most in the 140-member General Assembly joined Norment in speaking against the bill.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, said that when he attends conferences he likes to grab a tote bag and fill it with leaflets and other materials made available by outside vendors to take home for later reading.
Hanger, who got a big laugh from his colleagues and the audience by citing the American Association for Nude Recreation as one such distributor of literature, said he was concerned that those types of materials could be covered by McEachin's bill.
The committee dispatched McEachin's bill with little further discussion.
Later, McEachin said in an interview that he submitted the legislation at the behest of "progressive groups" that had been unable to find out what legislators were discussing or studying at publicly financed conferences.
"We should not be spending taxpayer dollars on events that are not transparent," said McEachin, who was not among the 43 legislators reporting such trips in reports compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit tracker of political cash in Virginia politics. Norment also was not on the list.
Hanger's five trips were the most of any lawmaker, and his $2,907 visit to Chicago for the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual summit was the most expensive. Several other lawmakers attended that meeting but spent a little less.
Sen. Charles W. "Bill" Carrico, R-Grayson, was second in spending at $5,408 for two trips, followed by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, with $5,217 for three trips. Del. Richard Anderson, R-Prince William, took four trips for $5,147. No other lawmaker broke the $3,000 mark.
State-financed trips are not the only opportunities for lawmakers to get out of Virginia. Eleven legislators reported taking privately funded overseas trips, which would not have been subject to McEachin's legislation. Eight of those lawmakers were guests of the American Turkish Friendship Association, with expenses ranging from $1,800 to $3,700. Taiwan paid $7,000 to host Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, for a week.
Closer to home, and also not covered by McEachin's bill, a number of nongovernment organizations paid legislators' way to conferences and meetings. The Virginia Trial Lawyers Association was the biggest spender at $7,803, according to VPAP, followed by the American Legislative Exchange Council at $7,347.
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