Tax-cutting fever has many of Virgina's legislators nervous this session as they try to reduce spending and cut taxes for their constituents before heated elections this fall.
But as the Virginia General Assembly opens today, a host of consumer-oriented business bills are being proposed in an attempt to help Virginians save money.
Included among the proposals are bills to license auto repair shops and to prohibit oil refineries and producers from owning service stations in the state and a request to allow residents to pay their personal property taxes with Visa and Mastercharge cards.
Other proposals outlaw the automatic fuel adjustment clause used by utilities to raise prices, and require that members of the State Corporation Commission be expanded from three to five members and be elected by the public rather than appointed by the legislature. "That's going to be a hot issue," said William E. Fears, chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.
Last year a great number of consumer-oriented bills were voted down and some have re-emerged this year. Some consumer advocates are hoping that the legislators' consumer watch-dog stance this year will result in more bite than last year's bark.
Although many business-related bills favor the consumer, some do not,
For example, Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond) has introduced a bill to prohibit those who leave employment with severance pay from collecting unemployment compensation until their severance runs out. The Virginia Employment Commission has said that $2.2 million in benefits is being paid out in this way.
"This is one of the reasons why the unemployment fund is being reduced by a terrific amount," Willey said. "It's just grossly wrong in my judgment. Employment is meant for the unemployed, not people on a three-month vacation."
A number of bills affecting product liability are being pushed by the insurance lobbyists, according to Grover Czech of the American Insurance Association. One would make it harder for individuals injured by defective products to sue the manufacturer, Czech said. One suggestion would be to place a limit on the amount of time in which a person claiming injury can sue, Czech said.
"I'll have to check up on that one," said Barbara Bitters, lobbyist for the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council.
Two other bills up for consideration concern the regulation of auto repair shops. One is a revised proposal carried over from last year that requires the licensing of auto repair shops and urges certification of mechanics.
"Shops are often owned by people who aren't mechanics," Bitters said. "And they don't demand that their mechanics do the right job."
Another bill would define what auto repair shops should do, such as giving customers estimates before starting work and contacting the owner if the cost of the work exceeds a certain percentage of the estimate.
"It says what most good shops are already doing," Bitters said.
One bill, aimed particularly at Vepco, would permit only one rate increase request a year. Another proposal would outlaw the automatic fuel adjustment clause that allows Vepco to add costs to a customer's bill without approval of the State Corporation Commission.
The bill would place the automatic fuel adjustment "in the category of a normal rate increase," said Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax). "There are a lot of us who feel there shouldn't be an automatic increase without something like an evidentiary hearing."
Because arson is increasing nationwide, according to law enforcement officials, a bill has been introduced that would require insurance companies investigating a fire loss of real or personal property to furnish police with that information. Under the proposed law, the insurance companies would be granted immunity from civil suits resulting from their information.
The bill would make arson investigation "a little bit easier than it is now," Czech, of the insurance association, said. In the long run, "as the incidence of arson goes down, rates would go down," he added.
Another bill, introduced to help the state's 3,000 independent service station owners, would prohibit oil refiners and producers from acquiring service stations in the state.
The bill, filed at the request of the Virginia State Gasoline Retailers Association, attempts to "stop the further encroachment of producers and refiners of gasoline," said the association's executive secretary, James W. Heizer.
Heizer said the number of service station owners shrunk by 1,400 between 1972 and 1976 because the big companies "forced them out of business." More than 370 of the state's 3,247 service stations in 1976 were owned by the big companies, Heizer said.
Last June, the Supreme Court upheld a similar law in Maryland, the first of its kind in the country. The justices rejected the oil companies' arguments that Maryland was acting unconstitutionally by depriving them of their property without due process of law and by pre-empting congressional authority to regulate interstate commerce.