(TNS) — RICHMOND — While many lawmakers the past few years have avoided corporate-funded trips, state Delegate Glenn Davis has not entirely shied away. But he says he can justify them.
In 2014, the then-freshman lawmaker from Virginia Beach went to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., courtesy of Dominion Virginia Power. He said the trip allowed him important one-on-one time with an energy expert to learn about issues he’d be voting on.
Last year, according to a new disclosure report, Davis visited Sonoma, Calif., courtesy of Volkswagen of America, which paid for his airfare, hotel and meals to attend an event on cars that drive themselves.
Back in Richmond this year, Davis filed two bills related to automated driving. He also proposed $500,000 in the two-year budget for a study on autonomous vehicles in partnership with a university.
Davis said what he’s learned could help Virginia.
“Virginia always wants to be able to bring significant research and development in new technologies to the commonwealth,” he said. “I have to represent my constituents, and my job is to help create jobs and bring high-tech industry here, and you can’t do that unless you understand the technology and what the opportunity is.”
In past years, the conflict disclosure forms of Virginia lawmakers were filled with lobbyist-paid hunting and golf outings, trips to football games and even other countries. Lawmakers, however, have largely scaled back those outings following the gifts scandal of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and scrutiny of their trips.
Lawmakers are required to report gifts and paid trips. Under a law that became effective Jan. 1, they must get permission from the state’s new ethics council for any gift over $100. They can still go on a trip or accept hotel rooms but must get approval.
Davis said the potential to bring new technology justifies his mid-July flight to California, where Audi, owned by Volkswagen, showcased autonomous vehicles for about 10 lawmakers from around the country and for officials from state motor vehicle agencies.
Davis said Volkswagen reached out to him because of his position on the House Transportation Committee and on the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Technology and Science.
“It was an up-and-back trip,” Davis said. “If anyone has ever taken an up-and-back trip to California … I think they realize that is anything but a vacation.”
Davis said he had a glass of wine at a reception “and a couple pieces of cheese,” and for dinner ordered a $12 meal at a Mexican restaurant.
What he learned, though, is that autonomous vehicles are in their infancy, “and our goal should be to ensure that Virginia is at the forefront.”
Davis listed the value of the trip as $2,371.63.
Davis sponsored HB1372, which was aimed at defining the various levels of autonomous vehicles in state law. But the bill needed more work, so Davis struck it, hoping to work on it when the legislature is not in session, he said.
His second bill, HB454, relates to the visual display in an autonomous vehicle and passed the House.
State Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, also went to the California conference. But he paid for the trip himself.
“I even bought folks a couple bottles of wine,” said DeSteph, who sponsored similar legislation that passed the Senate. “I pay my own way for everything.”
Although Davis proposed $250,000 each year in the budget for the study, he said in an interview that the second year wouldn’t be necessary and he’d scale back the request. His proposed budget amendment says the money would be “allocated for a joint research and development project between Virginia universities and a private industry for the continued development of autonomous vehicles” and would need to be matched by a private firm.
If approved, Davis said, any university could apply to do the study.
Volkswagen hopes to do business with Virginia.
Last week, it took the chairmen of the House and Senate transportation committees on a ride in a driverless Audi vehicle named “Jack,” which made a 560-mile trip from the Silicon Valley to Las Vegas in 2015. In Richmond, the car reached the speed limit on the interstate with the lawmakers and Audi employees inside – no hands on the steering wheel.
“If no one was sitting in the driver’s seat, that would make me a little nervous,” said Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, the chairman of the Transportation Committee. Del. Ron Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, chairs the House committee and also went on the demonstration.
Fully autonomous vehicles are 20 to 30 years away, but as technology advances, the machine will be doing more and more of the driving, said Brad Stertz, a spokesman for Volkswagen-owned Audi of America, based in Northern Virginia.
©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.