Va. Growth Bolstered by Well-Funded Voting Bloc

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's plans to stem traffic congestion and development face a severe test in the committees.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's plans to stem traffic congestion and development face a severe test in the committees. (By Bob Brown -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2006

RICHMOND -- Long before Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) called for new controls on the spread of homes and businesses across the suburbs, home builders and contractors were busy making campaign contributions to the lawmakers who will decide the fate of his proposals.

Now, just as the movement to regulate development is gaining broader support, that very targeted largess may pay big dividends for the industry in two legislative committees that have a long history of quickly and efficiently dispatching controlled-growth bills with a simple motion to "pass by indefinitely."

In the past decade, residential builders, contractors, developers and real estate agents have handed out about $1.4 million in campaign contributions to 14 members of the Senate Local Government Committee and 22 members of the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project. No other industry has given as much to the lawmakers on those two committees.

In addition, some of those lawmakers accepted dinners and tickets to banquets and other events from developers and contractors, state disclosure documents show.

Kaine and lawmakers from both political parties have responded to public concerns about traffic congestion by proposing bills to increase the power and flexibility that local governments have to limit traffic-generating development. Such measures face a severe test in the two committees.

Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), the only member of the House committee to never have received a contribution from home builders, said the committee historically is "a funeral pyre for all those bills."

Marshall and other controlled-growth lawmakers have routinely sought new laws to slow or stop development. His bills -- offered without any big-time backing from a governor -- usually get 17 or 18 "no" votes on the 22-member House committee.

This year could be different. Kaine has put his political clout behind a plan to give city councils and boards of supervisors more authority to slow sprawl, triggering a legislative fight that has been building in Richmond for years.

"People are living a reality now where they look at these issues differently," Kaine told reporters last week. "Sure, I talked about them. I put them on the table. The way people are responding is a reflection of the reality they see."

Amateur oddsmakers in Richmond are still betting on the well-financed development industry. Bill Thomas, a top adviser to Democratic governors and the co-founder of the original Hazel and Thomas law firm, serves as the chief counsel to the home builders.

But the builders are facing angry citizens in rapidly growing suburbs who say that sprawl and development are the chief cause of traffic congestion. In their first big lobbying trip to Richmond last week, Fairfax neighborhood activists Bruce Bennett and Deborah Reyher pleaded with lawmakers to go further than Kaine.

"We're always concerned about the developers. We're always concerned about their money," Bennett said Tuesday. "But we are the voters, and we are just beginning to speak."

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