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Virginia House Democrats outline bills on transparency and government reform

Following gain of at least 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, Democrats are making government transparency the hallmark issue in the first legislative proposals the party is backing for the 2018 session.

They outlined proposals to ban personal use of campaign money, end gerrymandering of legislative districts and make public a database held by the state Supreme Court's executive secretary - information that is only searchable now by making a request to every circuit court clerk in the commonwealth.

Transparency has "been a priority for years and there will be other priorities," said Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, the party's leader in the House. Other delegates and delegates-elect joined Toscano on a conference call Monday to outline some of the legislative proposals.

The stunning extent of the Democratic pickup on Nov. 7 shrunk the Republican House majority from 66-34 to 51-49, but some races may be subject to recounts or legal challenges. Even if Democrats don't end up tied or in control of the chamber, the closeness of its split gives them a stronger chance to pass legislation. Republicans control the state Senate 21-19.

Here's a look at some of the Democrats' proposals:

* A ban on personal use of campaign funds.

Virginia lawmakers can use money from their campaign committees for anything except when they're closing out an account. Lawmaker spending on hotels, gasoline and restaurants is all covered.

Ending personal use of campaign money was among recommendations made in December 2015 by the bipartisan Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government. Gov. Terry McAuliffe created the commission after the gifts scandal involving former Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Del. Marcus B. Simon, D-Fairfax, has introduced legislation each year since 2014 to ban personal use of campaign money, but Republicans have fought it. Earlier this year, however, GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie called for a ban on personal use of campaign money and House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said he supported the move.

Simon said that indicates the plan, laid out in House Bill 5 and House Bill 7, has bipartisan support. Delegate-elect Kelly Fowler, a Democrat from Virginia Beach, said the idea that lawmakers can spend campaign money on anything essentially makes a campaign donation a bribe.

"I campaigned on the idea of cleaning up Virginia's weak ethics laws and getting the money out of politics," Fowler said.

* Redistricting reform.

Del. Richard C. "Rip" Sullivan Jr., D-Fairfax, said he will introduce two bills along with Del.-elect Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke. One would stop lawmakers from favoring a political party or incumbent when drawing district lines. The second would create an independent redistricting commission to draw legislative district lines.

Such proposals have received bipartisan support in the state Senate but have been blocked by Republican leaders in the House.

Gooditis said she hopes a changed makeup in the House will allow the legislature to change the system. "Gerrymandering happens to be the first issue that got me up and running back in February," she said.

* State crime data.

The office of the Executive Secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court has a database on criminal court records. The Daily Press newspaper in Newport News filed a lawsuit after being denied access to it; the newspaper wanted to use the database to determine whether race plays a part in plea agreements in Virginia's courts.

In a decision that dismayed open government proponents, the Supreme Court of Virginia in June ruled that the database was not a public record, saying the General Assembly made each circuit court clerk the guardian of court records.

Del. Michael P. Mullin, D-Newport News, an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Suffolk, said his House Bill 4 would make the Supreme Court's database searchable statewide. Del.-elect Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, will co-sponsor the bill.

Mullin sponsored the bill this year, but it was put on hold because the lawsuit was pending.

"This is a transparency issue, so that we can be assured that judges, prosecutors and all those in the criminal justice system are working fairly to make sure that communities of color, those who are disenfranchised and those just entering the criminal justice system are being protected, and all rights are being preserved," Mullin said.

Democrats also promoted a bill that would ban credit-reporting agencies from charging fees to people who freeze their credit report.

House Republicans issued a news release Monday about some of the initial legislation they're filing. It includes a proposal to amend the state's Freedom of Information Act to prohibit release of student information from college and university directories without a student's permission.

House Bill 1, sponsored by Del. Tony O. Wilt, R-Rockingham, comes in response to a campaign tactic used by Democratic-aligned groups and candidates this year - including Attorney General Mark R. Herring - that consisted of sending text messages about the elections to people's cell phone. Radford University and Virginia Tech turned over student names, addresses and cell phone numbers to progressive political group NextGen Virginia, the Roanoke Times reported.

"When students and parents provide colleges and universities with their personal information, they should not have to worry that that information will be made public and used inappropriately," Wilt said in a news release.

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