To conservatives like Del. C. Hardaway Marks, a crusty Democrat from Hopewell whose fingers are yellowed from the cigars he constantly puffs, they are "zoomer bills."
And when Marks and his business-oriented colleagues in the Virginia General Assembly get their hands on any consumer measure, the "zoomer bills" generally are accorded the reception evangelist Jerry Falwell might receive at a gay rights rally.
The current legislative session, which ends Saturday, has been no different. The Fairfax-based Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, a coalition of 400 members and the state's only consumer organization with a Richmond lobbyist, has lost nearly every battle it waged.
Moreover the council and its volunteer Richmond lobbyist have puzzled many legislators by the stands they have taken--among them opposition to fluoridation of water (the lobbyist's position but not the council's) and support for a coal slurry pipeline.
"Once again, this has been a bad year for consumers," says Barbara Bitters, a 52-year-old Richmond homemaker who works part-time as the council's lobbyist. Despite the council's protests, the legislature removed labeling requirements on paint and dog food and killed a returnable bottle bill, and a fire-safety measure that would have required cigarettes to be smolder-proof.
"The problem is that the consumer lobby is very weak and just gets overwhelmed by the monied special interests," says State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).
Indeed Bitters and other consumer advocates regularly found themselves pitted against a phalanx of handsomely paid business lobbyists, including the venerable Sumpter Priddy, lobbyist for the Virginia Retail Merchants Association, who knows most of the state's 140 lawmakers on a first-name basis. "Many of these old boys--and girls--I've known for more than 30 years and now they're businessmen or members of the legislature with a great interest in what I'm doing," says the 58-year-old Priddy, who is considered one of Richmond's most skillful lobbyists.
Last month Bitters astonished some lawmakers when she entered one of this session's biggest lobbying battles on the side of Virginia Electric and Power Co., supporting construction of a $650 million coal slurry pipeline. Bitters said the project was "the council's number one priority" and that she sided with Vepco because she believed the pipeline would mean lower rates for customers.
Some legislators sympathetic to consumer causes suggest that those interests have been hurt by the council's own agenda. "I hardly think that coal slurry is going to reduce Vepco rates," said State Sen. Clive DuVal 2d (D-Fairfax), a veteran consumer activist. "And I certainly haven't heard from any of my constituents that they want dog food labeled."
"I really don't know what Barbara does around here," said Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax) whose smolder-proof cigarette bill was killed in a subcommittee after The Tobacco Institute dispatched a lobbyist from Washington.
Bitters on her own joined the uphill and unsuccessful campaign against fluoridated water led by State Sen. Eva F. Scott (R-Amelia), a position the council did not endorse. Bitters also championed two bills backed by the Retail Merchants that breezed through the legislature. One measure will stiffen registration requirements for companies that professionally solicit for charities. Another grants a $1.2 million tax break to Virginia companies that sought an exemption from state sales tax on newspaper advertising inserts.
"That was just taxation without representation," Bitters said. "It could have meant that the companies would stop advertising in newspapers or would charge us more for food."
Others say the Virginia legislature has long been hostile to consumer measures. "There's a saying that old legislators never die, they just get appointed to judgeships and the State Corporation Commission," said Christie Vernon, a Tidewater consumer activist.
"The attitude in this state can be absolutely antediluvian, sort of like what's good for business is good for Virginia," she said. "There's a very deep suspicion of anything like consumerism that smells remotely populist. In Virginia the attitude is that the people are not to be trusted."
Vernon and other activists say the consumer movement has suffered from the recession and from the gains the consumer movement made in the mid-1970s. "When times are bad, consumer issues just take a back seat," said Gail Davenport, executive director of the council. "I also think people believe the consumer movement has won all the big battles."
Del. Gladys B. Keating (D-Fairfax) says that Virginia consumers seem resigned to achieving "tiny little successes." She cites a 1979 law governing auto repairs performed in service stations that says stations should give written estimates at their convenience between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and cannot exceed estimates by more than 10 percent. "It's not much," Keating said, "but it's better than nothing."
Last year the consumer groups may have been weaker. They didn't protest, for example, when the assembly lifted the interest rate ceilings on bank and retail store credit card charges. Saslaw and a handful of other consumer-oriented lawmakers fought the move, which bankers and business groups advocated as government deregulation.
"I really can't say why it didn't attract our attention," said Davenport. "We're studying what the results of deregulation have been, even though it's a little bit late."