The accompanying articles are part of a series examining the way in which the Maryland and Virginia legislatures conduct their business .
In Virginia, periodic articles will follow the progress of a single bill - a measure that would regulate auto repair garages. In Maryland, the articles will describe the General Assembly, as it wrestles with a major issue - property taxes.
Getting the Virginia General Assembly to approve legislation for the regulation of car-repair garages has proved about as difficult as shipping a block of ice across the Sahara Desert by camel.
Supporters of such legislation have maintained that horror stories about car repairs and their costs are the most numerous of all consumer complaints. But the atmosphere in the General Assembly has been so unremittingly negative that in past sessions all bills aimed at regulating garages or repairmen have died in committee.
With this dismal legislative history in mind, Del. Raymond E. Vickery (D-Fairfax) and a group of his colleagues have drafted a bill this year that they think meets, or rebuts, all the major objections. In doing so, however, they have made the new measure weaker than the defeated legislation.
The bill would require all car-repair facilities to obtain a $50 license to operate. The licensing would be done by the Division of Motor Vehicles, which could suspend the license of any facility that has "fraudulent or negligent repair work. A commonwealth's attorney could bring suit on the recommendation of a local consumer agency.
The bill, unlike previous proposals would not require individual mechanics to be licensed or pass any tests on their proficiency.
If Vickery's bill is to succeed, it will have to have the support of, or at least not be opposed by three important forces:
The garages' lobbyists - the Virginia Gasoline Retailers Association, the Virginia Retail Merchants Association and the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association.
The key committees in the legislature - Roads and Internal Navigation in the House and either General Laws or Transportation in the Senate.
The Department of Motor Vehicles, which would regulate the garages.
On the lobbying front, the 1978 version of the bill has made more progress than any of the previous proposals.
"As a lobbyist, I can look at it and, assuming I can get assurances from the DMV and the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys, say it does not post a threat to the honest repair shop operator," said Gary L. Denton, counsel to the gasolin dealers.
"We have no qualms with licensing of shops, but not mechanics," said Sumpter T. Priddy Jr., president of the merchants association.
Both groups opposed a bill offered by Vickery during the last session of the legislature, primarily because mechanics themselves would have to be licensed.
With no major lobbying group opposing it, Vickery's revamped bill has a better chance of clearing the House Roads Committee than last year's version did, but there are still formidable roadblocks. The new chairman of the committee, Del. Orby L. Cantrell, a Democrat from Southwest Virginia, said: "I've taken a dim view of these bills in the past . . . There may be the need for some kind of regulation in the future, but I doubt if I could support it at this time." He added, though: "If it's something I thought I could live with, I might be able to support it."
Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), who offerd a regulation bill last year in the General Laws Committee, which he chairs, said, "I'm not going to put in a bill this year." However, if the Vickery bill does pass the House, it would automatically go to Senate, which could then send it to Brault's committee or perhaps the Transportation Committee.
The revisions Vickery has made in his bill have not persuaded one Northern Virginia colleague, Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington), who has opposed such legislation in the past. "It will only serve to raise the cost of repairs," she said. Marshall said she shares concerns about consumer rip-offs, but adds: "If I could figure out what to do then I would be all for the state moving. But I can't."
The last critical element of any effort to regulate garages is what stand is taken by the Division of Motor Vehicles, which, under the Vickery bill, would be in charge of licensing.
The revised bill attempts to satisfy DMV concerns, expressed last year, that the new responsibilities would prove too costly. The bill provides for a $50 license fee.
Despite the proposed fee, DMV Commissioner Vern L. Hill does not sound any more enthusiastic this year than he did in 1977. "The thing I'm concerned about is that it (licensing) would cost a bundle of money" for the state to administer, he said.
Between sessions of the General Assembly, the car-repair bill went through the customary dilution proces that awaits most controversial measures if they are to succeed. Has the bill been watered down so much that it could not achieve its intended effect?
"Anything is better than nothing," says Barbara W. Bitters, vice president of the Richmond chapter of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council.
Vickery himself thinks the licensing provision will be a powerful deterrent to dishonest or shoddy repair work. "If the bill won't advance its purpose, it's a sham," he says, "and is a misrepresentation to the consumer."
Yet DMV Commissioner Hill says: "If we're going to ride herd on 10,000 businesses, it doesn't make any sense to license them unless we follow up and check on them . . ." There is no provision in the bill for routine policing of the garages the DMV would license.
As a result, Hill says, "I question whether the bill is going to do what they (its supporters) say it will."