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Virginia Senate Committee Approves Bill to Withhold Public Employee Information

The legislation was passed by the General Laws and Technology Committee whose rationale was to protect the private information of public employees from possible hackers.

(TNS) -- Identity theft and the Islamic State group were offered Monday as reasons lawmakers should prohibit release of public employee salary databases and raise the threshold for which salaries are public.

Senators on the General Laws and Technology Committee approved two bills limiting access to that information.

n SB202 by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland County, would raise from $10,000 to about $30,000 the threshold for which state and local public employee salaries are public. It also would prohibit the release of a database that includes names and salaries of public employees.

Sara Wilson, director of the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management, said public data appears to have been used in cases of identity theft. In two hearings, however, she provided no examples. Craig Merritt, a lawyer representing the Virginia Press Association, which opposes the bill, said the bill would protect patronage and inconsistent salaries among employees.

The committee passed it 9-4. Voting in favor: Republican Sens. Frank Ruff, Jill Holtzman Vogel, Stuart, Dick Black, Bryce Reeves, Tom Garrett and Bill DeSteph of Virginia Beach, and Democrats Scott Surovell and Jennifer Wexton.

Voting against: Democratic Sens. Mamie Locke of Hampton, Chap Petersen, George Barker and Adam Ebbin. Democratic Sen. Jeremy McPike and Republican Sen. David Suetterlein abstained.

n SB552 by Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, initially exempted names of law enforcement officers from release.

Cosgrove filed the bill in response to a November court ruling allowing The Virginian-Pilot access to names, agencies and employment dates for current Virginia police officers. The newspaper is examining how often officers who got in trouble were able to find other jobs in law enforcement. Cosgrove said he worries about the safety of undercover officers. Opponents, however, point out that undercover officers never use their real names.

A substitute bill covers not just police but all public employees. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said in an email that it would keep from public disclosure salary information from a local official to the football coach at Virginia Tech.

DeSteph cited protecting police in making a motion to pass the bill.

“What’s happened in the last 30 years is ISIS terrorism and targeting of our police officers and individuals,” he said.

The bill passed 8-7. Voting in favor: Ruff, Vogel, Stuart, Black, Reeves, Garrett, DeSteph and McPike. Voting against: Locke, Petersen, Barker, Ebbin, Wexton, Surovell and Suetterlein.

©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.