While Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb and the state's 140 lawmakers gather in Richmond this week to grapple with a $305 million budget shortfall, the state's business lobbyists have an agenda of their own for the 1983 General Assembly session.
At the top of the list is the controversy over a proposed coal slurry pipeline--a battle of corporate Goliaths that has divided the business community down the middle.
In one corner: the Virginia Electric and Power Co., the state's biggest utility, and the Transco Energy Corp. of Houston, which have proposed construction of a $650 million pipeline to move crushed coal from the mountains of southwest Virginia to Vepco power plants in Tidewater.
In the other corner: the state's railroads--CSX, the Norfolk and Western, and other economic powerhouses, which view the pipeline as a competitive disaster. CSX has hired former Republican Gov. John Dalton for its lobbyist; Vepco has lined up William G. Thomas, Alexandria lawyer and close political confidant of Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb.
The issues that surround the pipeline are far-reaching, touching on economic viability, environmental damage and the future of the state's water supplies. Too far-reaching, many legislators have warned, for a short 46-day session in which they have politically sensitive budget cuts to worry about. But Thomas, who has drafted a bill that would allow the State Corporate Commission to grant permits for pipeline construction, is undeterred.
"I don't think there's a member of the General Assembly who hasn't gotten some communication from somebody on this," he said. "I think we have a reasonable shot at getting the bill."
Another key business issue is a campaign by the Marline Uranium Co. for legislation that would eventually allow it to tap its rich find, announced last summer, in southern Virginia. And then there is the perennial battle over the bottle bill, with bottlers and beer wholesalers lined up against environmentalists over a bill to require deposits on soda and beer bottles and cans.
Sumpter Priddy, president of the Virginia Retail Merchants Association, says the elimination of a 4 percent sales tax on advertising inserts is highest on his group's legislative wish list.
"This thing is just killing us in the marketplace," said Priddy, who says the law unfairly penalizes merchants who advertise in newspapers by making them pay printers a standard sales tax on such supplements.
Priddy and a spokesman for the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce say both groups will be pushing legislators to reinstitute a one-week waiting period for people applying for unemployment benefits.
Current law allows eligible jobless workers to begin collecting benefits immediately, a situation Priddy says costs businessmen an estimated $25.5 million annually. A one-week delay, Priddy says, would save employers money because many workers are rehired after about five weeks.
The 9,000-member merchants association also favors legislation that would clamp down on street vendors by permitting local jurisdictions to charge vendors $500 for a business license. The present maximum fee is $50, said Priddy.
In addition, the merchants favor regulating "going out of business sales" by making businessmen file a statement of inventory on hand and the proposed duration with local revenue commissioners.
In another utility issue, Vepco has banded together with Washington Gas Light and the Potomac Electric & Power Co. to push a bill that will allow utilities to diversify into other industries without going through lengthy proceedings before the SCC. Under present law, if Vepco wants to buy up another firm, it has to submit to a public hearing--a powerful disincentive since "a lot of times you don't want everybody in the world to know what you're doing," says Vepco vice president O.J. Peterson.
Should the bill pass, says Peterson, Vepco could use it to go into the pipeline business as well as commercial real estate.
In what has become an annual ritual, the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce plans to lobby for legislation that would freeze, or better yet, eliminate business license taxes, said president James Rees.
Rees said the Fairfax chamber will again oppose a proposal by consumer groups to increase the membership of the SCC that regulates utility rates. For years, consumer groups have pushed in vain for citizen representation on the three-member group that currently is appointed by the General Assembly.
"Rate setting is a very technical and specialized area," Rees cautioned. "Opening that up to citizens could easily mean you'd introduce the element of politics and have people on there who don't have the foggiest idea of what a rate is or how to set it."
The premier contest for the Virginia Medical Society concerns a request by the state's optometrists, traditionally opposed by Virginia's opthamologists, for permission to dispense eyedrops, chief lobbyist Allen Goulsby said.
Goulsby said he expects a bill raising the ceiling on medical malpractice awards from $750,000 will be reintroduced this year. Last year Del. Bernard S. Cohen, a medical malpractice lawyer, sponsored a similar bill which was opposed by the medical society.
John Edmonds III, lobbyist for the Virginia Bankers Association, says his organization will be pre-occupied with "little technical housekeeping matters" concerning, for example, liens on boats.
"We're not going to have anything like the credit card interest bill," he said, referring to last year's controversial bill that was the bankers' chief priority that lifted Virginia's 18 percent ceiling on credit card interest rates.
Ralph Baird, executive director of the 250-member Northern Virginia Apartment Owners Association said he plans to lobby for legislation permitting landlords to file criminal charges against tenants who pass bad checks. Present law says they are subject only to civil prosecution.
"Of course, there are some things we expect to be fighting off," said Baird. Among these are proposals that would permit local jurisdictions to declare a moratorium on condominium conversions and another permitting tenants to spend up to $200 to repair apartments and deduct that cost from their rent.