The busiest travelers among the Lynchburg area’s delegation to the General Assembly are Dels. Kathy Byron and Lacey Putney, according to personal finance statements they reported during the past three years.
Byron also said she took a trip to Taiwan, sponsored by its cultural office, that she didn’t report because Virginia taxpayers didn’t pay for it.
Putney and Byron both filed statements of economic interests with the House of Delegates for trips they made to conferences held by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which describes itself as a think tank that helps state lawmakers deal with public-policy issues and solutions.
Two other Lynchburg-area legislators reported receiving free meals, football tickets, and travel for government-related events during the past three years.
Interest in gifts received by lawmakers has spiked up amid controversy this spring about gifts Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli received from political contributor Jonnie Williams, CEO of Star Scientific .
The trip to Taiwan that Byron didn’t report occurred in 2012, and three other Virginia legislators took the trip with her.
Apparently, all the expenses were covered by the Taiwanese government, which makes a practice of inviting U.S. government leaders to visit its islands.
Two of the legislators, state Sens. William Carrico, R-Galax, and Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, disclosed the trip on their annual personal finance statements to the Senate of Virginia, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Both Carrico and Reeves listed the trip as a gift and valued it at $4,000, describing it as a trade mission for Virginia economic development.
Byron said she was invited on the trip by a Taiwan representative and she never saw an expense statement.
“Because it wasn’t a personal thing, or funded through state tax dollars, I didn’t think I had to report it,” Byron said, adding that she planned to check with Cuccinelli’s office to see if the trip should be added to her disclosure statement.
The Taiwan hosts kept the legislators busy more than 12 hours per day showing off the country’s social life, medical facilities, high-speed rail and business assets, Byron said.
“There was not one bit of free time to do anything for yourself,” she said.
The other Virginia lawmaker who Byron said made the trip, Del. Dave Ramadan, R-Fairfax County, did not list Taiwan on his disclosure forms cited by VPAP.
State legislators from Maryland and West Virginia also made the Taiwan trip, Byron said.
In addition, Taiwan has treated state lawmakers from New Mexico, Florida and California to free trips to see its culture and business assets, according to reports by news media in those states.
Other travel, listed on local legislators’ disclosure forms, included the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conferences.
Taxpayers paid about $2,300 for three ALEC trips, one by Putney in 2010 and two by Byron in 2011 and 2012. The trips cost more than that, but the council’s corporate sponsors also cover part of the expenses. The ALEC conferences were held in Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Washington.
About 35 Virginia lawmakers are members of ALEC, although not all of them attend its meetings. House Speaker William Howell, R-Spotsylvania County, is a member of the ALEC board of directors.
Byron said she has attended ALEC’s meetings for several years and is now chairwoman of its innovation and technology committee, focusing on topics such as data-storage centers like a Microsoft facility that was built in Mecklenburg County two years ago.
The purpose of the ALEC trips is recruiting more such investments into Virginia, Byron said, and sometimes that is done by creating legislation to set up tax breaks, or to provide financial incentives, that lure companies to relocate here.
Byron has sponsored several business-friendly bills in the General Assembly, including “tax reforms that enabled us to make some big investments for localities,” she said.
“I happen to believe that free markets and limited-government measures are going to be the thing that brings the economy back around,” Byron said.
ALEC is a corporate-sponsored forum that says it brings together state legislators and business leaders to talk about government policy focused on free markets, limited government and division of power between the federal and state levels.
Common Cause, a watchdog group that is perhaps ALEC’s foremost critic, accuses it of underreporting its lobbying impact.
Common Cause says on its website that ALEC “puts corporate interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans” and promotes the careers of state lawmakers who work with it.
“They sit side-by-side and collaborate to draft ‘model’ bills that reach into areas of American life ranging from voting rights to environmental protection. They work in concert,” Common Cause said.
Byron said the meetings involve legislators and corporate leaders “coming together to discuss federal laws and regulations that hinder growth.
“These are things we need to be aware of,” Byron said. “They are worth going to a meeting once a year.”
Critics “try to make them out as pleasure cruises or something,” Byron said.