The Virginia General Assembly is poised for several high-stakes battles affecting the business community. Lobbyists for the railroads, utilities, coal companies, retailers, developers, insurance companies and numerous others are crowding the halls of the State Capitol as they launch their strategies for the 1985 session.
The assembly, which convened Wednesday, may pass judgment this year on issues ranging from a proposed coal slurry pipeline and uranium mining to the rights of handicapped employes and development rights in rapidly growing areas.
The assembly also will consider legislation to change the way courts deal with claims for injuries in civil lawsuits, such as suits involving automobile accidents or medical malpractice. Advocates say the bill would help consumers by giving them more legal rights in claiming insurance coverage, but the insurance industry says it would raise premiums.
One of the most acrimonious fights this year probably will be over whether to build a coal slurry pipeline. The battle involves two of the state's most powerful business institutions -- the railroads, which haul coal, and the electric utilities, which three years ago began seeking an alternative that would provide relief from rising rail rates.
The $1 billion coal pipeline would allow shipments of coal -- mixed with water, oil or some other substance -- to move through a pipeline from the southwestern Virginia coal fields to the port of Hampton Roads. Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX Corp., two of Virginia's largest railroads, fear that the pipeline would take away their billion-dollar coal-hauling business.
On Friday, a legislative subcommittee sent two versions of the pipeline bill to the full House Courts of Justice Committee. One proposal would allow water to carry the mixture and one would not. The subcommittee report leaned toward the no-water alternative, reflecting concerns about the huge amounts of water that would be used by the pipeline. A vote is expected by the full panel Friday.
The coal slurry bill was pulled from the House floor last year by supporters, a surprise move that was viewed as a defeat for the coal companies and utilities, which have come back swinging this year. Gov. Charles S. Robb told the assembly last week that if "an environmentally safe bill" is passed, he will sign it and "let the free enterprise system determine its ultimate fate."
Environmental safety also was a concern for Robb in his decision to support an end to a ban on uranium mining. For the past two years, the governor had asked legislators to extend the moratorium while environmental studies were conducted. Last week, he said the problems have been addressed, and that he will sign "environmentally safe legislation to permit . . . mining."
Business is gearing up for another fight over Robb's rights for the handicapped bill, known as the Virginians With Disability Act. It would consolidate state agencies and boards that help handicapped people and strengthen programs that protect their rights.
The measure ran into heated opposition last year from the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce and other powerful business groups, which said it would place an unfair burden on employers. Opponents complained that they might be required to hire mentally disabled workers, and that creating a special office to represent the handicapped could result in more discrimination suits. Supporters said the measure was designed to place a minimal burden on business. The bill passed the assembly last year but still requires Senate approval. On Friday, the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee approved the bill and sent it to the full Senate, where it faces formidable opposition.
Meanwhile, powerful business organizations, including insurance companies, the Chamber of Commerce, retailers, doctors and utility companies, have teamed up to battle the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association's efforts to restructure state liability laws. The proposed "comparative fault" law would, among other things, allow victims of a car accident to claim financial damages in a civil suit even if they were partially responsible for the accident.
Proponents of the change say they are trying to help consumers and that current state law discriminates against accident victims by virtually barring them from receiving any compensation in cases where they may have been slightly negligent.
Insurance companies contend the changes would increase insurance premiums; proponents of the proposed law say insurance companies in states that have enacted the law have not raised their rates.
Some legislators representing rapidly growing counties, such as Loudoun, have proposed controversial legislation that they say would allow their counties to continue growing economically while preserving dwindling agricultural and park lands.
"Transfer development rights" would allow county officials to permit dense development in some areas of the county in return for guaranteed preservation of open space in other areas. Developers, county officials and legislators are sharply divided over the issue.
Retail merchants will fight attempts to revive the bottle bill, which would require refundable deposits on all beverage containers and eliminate throwaway containers. The measure is supported by environmentalists.