State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, a Fairfax Democrat, has done battle for a broad range of constituents this session, working with abortion rights advocates to defeat an abortion bill and with forces fighting drunk driving to raise the drinking age.
He's also taken up the cause of better retirement benefits for one particular constituent -- his business partner and former General Assembly colleague, Warren E. Barry.
"I didn't do it because he was my business partner," Saslaw said. "I would do the same for anybody else."
Barry, a Republican, served in the House for 14 years, during which he contributed to the state retirement plan. Now, as clerk of the Fairfax County Circuit Court, he is eligible only for the county retirement plan.
To Saslaw, his bill to place the former legislator back in the state retirement system -- which passed the Senate without opposition and was unanimously endorsed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors -- constitutes a reasonable response to a "case with merit."
To others in the General Assembly, it falls into a category of self-serving bills they'd prefer to kill.
"I'd be ashamed to put it in," said Del. Owen B. Pickett (D-Virginia Beach), chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that will consider the bill.
"You are adjusting the whole retirement system for just one person . . . . "
This session of the General Assembly has seen a wide variety of what delegates and senators describe as personal legislation benefiting the sponsor or the sponsor's friends.
Some, such as the bill by Del. Floyd C. Bagley (D-Prince William) to penalize political opponents for making false statements, have drawn mostly snickers, while others have raised more troubling ethical questions.
H.B. 1496, which died a quick death before a House committee, provided what legislators say is a more typical example of how personal experiences produce legislation.
Its roots lie in an encounter Del. Theodore V. Morrison Jr. (D-Newport News) had with a convenience store clerk.
As Morrison relates the incident, the clerk kept him waiting for 20 minutes to pay for a tank of gas. According to Morrison, the clerk insisted on taking care of "every living soul in the place" before she would open a store safe to change his $50 bill.
Morrison responded with proposed legislation of two forthright paragraphs.
"When a customer of any retail establishment attempts to pay for goods," the bill says, ". . . and such establishment refuses or is unable to accept such currency, the customer may furnish his name and current address and shall thereupon be entitled to leave the premises . . . . "
In other words, said Sumpter T. Priddy Jr., president of the Virginia Retail Merchants Association, which opposed the bill, "a guy could come in there and take most anything he wants . . . and drive away."
Another attempt to "get even through the legislature," as one delegate puts it, was cut off this year by the House Privileges and Elections Committee.
H.B. 1013 would have set criminal penalities for intentionally circulating any false material about a political candidate. It has become something of a crusade for Bagley, who has introduced it in three sessions.
The proposal arises out of a vitriolic and longstanding feud between Bagley and Jack Rollison, a Woodbridge tire dealer who tried to unseat Bagley in 1981. Bagley claims that during the campaign Rollison inaccurately reported his votes on several matters in a flier entitled "Bumbling B's Sting Taxpayers Again!!!"
The Privileges and Elections Committee shared the reaction of Morrison: "I'm not getting into that scrap," he said.
A proposal to allow a five-foot increase in truck length on state roads has found more support and, for some delegates, raised more serious concerns of legislating for one's personal gain in a way that would violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the conflict-of-interest law. "It happens a lot," said one delegate.
For the truck bill's sponsor, Del. V. Earl Dickinson (D-Louisa), the measure would translate into a saving of up to $100 a truckload in freight costs for his lumber mill in Spotsylvania County.
The current length limitation means Dickinson and a number of other businessmen whose operations are on the state's narrow or curvy roads can ship no more than 75,000 pounds per load -- 5,000 pounds less than their competitors in 15 out of 19 states.
Dickinson, who listed himself as president of Dickinson Brothers Lumber Co. Inc. on his financial disclosure form, said a more lenient law would save his lumber mill 15 percent in freight costs a year and also would benefit his farm. Without the change, he said, "you can't continue to compete."
For some legislators, a personal, financial interest of that degree in the outcome of a measure would rule out both voting on or sponsoring the bill. "I would not want to, no," said Del. J. Samuel Glasscock (D-Suffolk), who has pushed, without success, for a stronger conflict-of-interest law for General Assembly members.
Dickinson sees nothing improper in sponsoring the truck length measure.
Each legislator, he said, puts in bills within his area of expertise, and the fact that his business owns three tractor-trailers makes him a natural candidate to introduce truck laws.
"I have an automobile, and I vote on every automobile bill," he said.
The House passed the measure last week by a vote of 66 to 33, though opponents argued vigorously that any increase would drive up an already escalating rate of fatalities from tractor-trailor accidents. It is now before a Senate committee.
Virginia's conflict-of-interest law basically leaves it up to each legislator to decide questions of propriety, requiring only a brief financial disclosure form.
The law says members should abstain from legislating in areas where they have "an immediate and personal interest" and empowers a panel of nonlegislators to investigate complaints.
But, as a practical matter, legislators are reluctant to complain about their colleagues' potential conflicts. "My bills would disappear from the calendar," one legislator said firmly.
Maryland's conflict-of-interest law is worded more strongly. A Maryland legislator is presumed to have a conflict if he has "a direct interest in an enterprise that would be affected by the legislator's vote," and is disqualified from "voting on any question or attempting to influence any legislation" related to the area of conflict.
However, a legislator who files a statement with an ethics panel made up of fellow legislators can vote despite the appearance of a conflict if he asserts he can still be objective. The panel can challenge his statement.
While some Virginia delegates construe the rules on conflict of interest fairly broadly, others make wide detours around bills that might touch on their private business.
This session, for instance, Republican Sen. W. Onico Barker abstained from voting on two measures -- one to increase death benefits to families of employes killed on the job and another to exclude a person's savings for burial in determining eligibility for Medicaid.
Barker, a Danville funeral director, said the measures "may not benefit me directly, but would benefit my profession" and "could put me in the position of appearing to feather my own nest."
"We can't abstain on everything," Barker said, but when it comes to voting on measures that may appear to bring personal gain, "to keep the confidence in the system, I just don't think we should." CAPTION: Picture 1, Del. V. Earl Dickinson has sponsored a measure to allow a five-foot increase in the length of trucks on state roads. Dickinson says the bill would save his firm, Dickinson Brothers Lumber Co., $100 on each truckload of wood -- a savings of 15 percent of freight costs. Picture 2, Sen. Richard L. Saslaw is pushing a bill to cover Fairfax County Circuit Court Clerk Warren E. Barry, a business partner and ex-lawmaker, in the state retirement system. Saslaw says it's a response to a "case with merit" and he would do it for anyone. Picture 3, Del. Theodore V. Morrison Jr. was kept waiting for 20 minutes at a convenience store because the clerk was unable to change his $50 bill. His legislation would have allowed a customer to buy items by simply leaving his name and address when a clerk can't make change. Picture 4, Del. Floyd C. Bagley says his votes on several issues were misrepresented in a flyer distributed by a longtime political opponent. He has waged a three-year effort to get criminal penalties enacted for the intentional circulation of false material about a candidate.