When Virginia race car drivers, commerical linen operators and warehouse owners want a tax break, they all head for what some wags here call "Archie's Place."
That's not a reference to Archie Bunker's television bar, but to State Del. Archibald A. Campbell's tax writing House Finance Committee, where 20 legislators act out what seems to be the longest running soap opera in the history of the old Confederate capital.
If the cast of characters has changed recently, its central figure and his philosophy remain unmoved.
Campbell, a 58-year-old plain-spoken mountain lawyer, has done battle with several governors and numerous legislators seeking to impose various taxes on the Old Dominion. In virtually every instance, Campbell has prevailed, killing off taxes on tobacco, gasoline, coal and other substances.
This year perhaps more than any other legislator here, he stands in the way of Gov. John N. Dalton's proposed gasoline tax for Metro and highway construction.
"I don't happen to trust the highway department and I just haven't seen any proof yet that they really need more money," says Campbell, whose district is criss-crossed by two of the most costly interstate highways that Virginia has built.
Campbell's well known aversion to new taxes, however, has done little to stem the flow of favor-seekers. Like pilgrims before a holy shrine, special interests flock to House Room C on Monday and Wednesday afternoons to beseech his committee to grant them relief from the taxes that most of the public is forced to pay.
What they discover there is a group mired in a frustrating combination of chaos and inertia. Under Democrat Campbell, the committee can spend hours debating arcane changes in the stae's complex and often bewildering tax code and decide on millions of dollars of state taxes without benefit of its own professional staff.
As a result, committee members sometimes appear to labor under a slight inferiority complex especially when they compare themselves to the sister House Appropriations Committee, which many legislators contend is better staffed and better run.
"There's nothing that can raise the ire of a citizen like taxes can," says Del. Martin Perper (R-Fairfax). "So we get cast as the bad guys and appropriations is the good guys simply because we have to raise the money and they get to spend it."
Unitl recently the committee voted in a predictably conservative fashion on almost all major legislation. But this session few are venturing guesses on which bills will surivive and which will not.
"There are so many new people that nobody can say for sure how the committee will go," says Del. Erwin Solomon (D-Bath), a senior finance committee member.
Chairman Campbell is a Southwest Virginia lawyer who smokes a pipe, displays an occaisional cornball sense of humor and make no secret of his aversion of tax increases of almost any variety. Four years ago, Campbell led the committee in killing off then Gov. Mills E. Godwin's proposed tax on coal. He is expected to try to do the same to Dalton's gasoline tax proposal this year.
In the past, Campbell has also proved a roadblock to Metro funding and has fought efforts to allow Northern Virginia localities to impose their own gasoline or sales tax increases to pay for the rapid rail system. This year he says he's had a change of heart and will support some form of local option tax for Metro.
Campbell has been accused by critics of lacking both the management skills and leadership abilities to run a committee that must cope with the complex issues involved in raising more than $5 billion a year in state revenues.
"Archie Campbell could screw up a two-car funeral," groused one legislator a few years back.
But Campbell replies that what some people call leadership he considers bossism and he says he doesn't try to control the committee, only guide it.
Sometimes that approach turns committee meetings into endurance contests. Last week, for example, while lobbyists for utility, trucking and coal companies and food dealers huddled in the back of the room and some in the audience dozed off, Campbell devoted more than an hour to a relatively minor bill giving local revenue commissioners more authority to tax rental cars.
Committee members swapped humorous insults with the bill's sponsor, House Majority Leader Thomas Moss, spent 20 minutes, arguing over the legal definitions of "domicile" and "resdients." Finally Campbell ordered the bill back to a subcommittee for still further study.
Fellow members defend Campbell's penchant for straying from the subject at hand. "Archie does tend to go around the barn a lot," says one member. "But he's usually trying to make a point and sometimes he'll pick up something that the rest of us have missed."
Rapid changeover on the committee in recent years has created an experitse problem, say some lawmakers. Fully half its 20 members joined the committee within the last three years and many confess they are still novices at tax law.
The new membership sometimes makes for surprises. Take a proposed gasoline tax exemption for racing cars and motorcycles, a measure proposed by committee member Del. Theodore Morrison (D-Newport News) that came up last week..
Morrison, a highly influential legislator took pains to point out that the largest race car fuel distributor affected by his bill was located in Martinsville -- home district of powerful House Speaker A. L. Philpott, who was sitting in the audience. The implication was that smart committee members, concerned about the fate of their own pet bills, would go along with this one.
But Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) objected, saying he could not see how he could vote for a tax break for racing cars at a time when the committee was considering increasing gasoline taxes on regular motorists. Stambaugh has a history of unsuccessful one-man stands against such bills, but this time when the votes were counted he won by 9 to 7.
"We've got a lot wild cards on the committee these days," says Del. Lewis Parker (D-Mecklenburg), who supported the bill.
The committee is undergoing other changes besides membership. Whereas they used to meet only during the two-month legislative session, members now get together as often as once a week during the season to study new tax concepts and make recommendations.
The next step, many members believe, is a full-time staff of financial experts similar to the staffs now employed by House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committee.
"Here you have a Democratic controlled committee and they're still relying on revenue estimates and analyses done by a taxation department which after all is part of a Republican adminstration," says one committee watcher. "As the legislature grows more and more partisan, that is sure to change."