Business Group Threatens to Withhold Donations

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Washington area business group said yesterday that it will withhold political contributions from Virginia delegates running for election next year unless the General Assembly passes a "broad-based" transportation package for Northern Virginia.

The announcement by the Greater Washington Board of Trade comes a week after the legislature ended a special session on transportation without an agreement on how to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in road and transit projects across the state, including gridlocked Northern Virginia. The lack of a resolution angered many in the state's business community, which pushed lawmakers to find a compromise during the session.

"The Board of Trade is calling on the Virginia legislature to take responsibility for the state's transportation crisis before the lack of infrastructure funding further diminishes Greater Washington's business climate and its residents' quality of life," Jim Dinegar, president and chief executive of the group, said in a statement. "We will sit out this fundraising cycle."

The Board of Trade represents nearly 900 businesses in the Washington region, many of them in Northern Virginia. The group contributed $28,000 to Virginia legislative races in 2007, 60 percent of which went to Democrats. But Dinegar said contributions from individual members boost the total to more than $100,000. That is still a relatively small amount compared with the contributions made by some organizations and businesses.

"Virginia's critical transportation projects are now on hold or neglected entirely, and our region must plan for increased traffic congestion and more wasted time and fuel," Dinegar said in the statement. "At this rate, we can look forward to Greater Washington's traffic congestion rating going from the second worst in the nation to the worst."

Several business leaders said the announcement is an accurate reflection of their frustration with state lawmakers.

"This legislature is borderline dysfunctional," said Clayton Roberts, executive director of Virginia Free, a Richmond-based coalition of businesses from across the state. He said the Board of Trade's action is "effective in terms of making a statement and sending a message about how many of us feel."

Lawmakers said the Board of Trade's action might have little effect on its own. But if other groups follow suit or if there is a push to target individual lawmakers, the consequences could be more serious.

All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election next year. Senators do not run again until 2011.

Dinegar said the group is frustrated with Republican and Democratic legislators, but some lawmakers immediately cast the news in partisan terms.

"It's no surprise that an intransigent House Republican majority has alienated the Virginia business community," House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said in a statement.

A senior House Republican leader said many in the business community do not blame House leaders for the stalemate. During the session, a majority of GOP delegates shot down efforts to raise money for transportation through a statewide tax increase, saying that it would not be good for the state's economy.

The Democratic leadership fails to recognize "that there are others in the business community who believe raising taxes is bad economics," said M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), the House Majority Whip.

Some business leaders said that they considered action similar to the board's but that a host of important issues might preclude their withholding contributions over a single issue.

"Transportation is always a very important topic, but it's not the only thing we deal with," said William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, which has a political action committee. "Does that mean we're any less frustrated about the results of the special session? No. Does that mean we should sit back and do nothing? No. But it's hard to make decisions [about contributions] when looking through the prism of a litmus test."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company