Helen Savage, president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, received a telephone call two weeks ago from a policy analyst for a state regulatory agency.
The analyst wanted to alert Savage to a legislative hearing that would begin a few hours later on a bill by Del. Phoebe M. Orebaugh (R-Rockingham) to place citizen members on health regulatory panels.
It was the council's top legislative priority this year and Savage, the analyst said, "better get down there."
"Well, I'm in Washington," Savage replied resignedly from her fifth-floor office overlooking K Street NW, where she holds a full-time job with the American Association of Retired Persons. "We had no idea she was introducing anything. Anyway . . . . "
Even if Savage had been present, some legislators say, the outcome -- the bill died in committee -- probably would not have been different. The consumer lobby in the Virginia General Assembly is described by Del. Bernard S. Cohen (D-Alexandria) and many members of General Assembly as "very ineffective."
Cohen and other consumer-minded legislators say they get about as much support from groups such as the Consumer Council, the state's largest consumer organization, as they do from the statues in the Capitol courtyard.
As a result, says Cohen, some consumer issues go down merely "by default." Or, as Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax) puts it, "business and special interest groups are able to move in with less opposition" in a legislature that already harbors "a presumption in their favor."
To a large degree, legislators expect well-financed lobbyists from banking, manufacturing, trucking, utility and other business groups to lobby circles around the poverty-striken consumer organizations. They contribute heavily to many legislators' campaigns and "every time one of them stands up some members hear cash registers ringing," says Cohen.
But this session has been even more unbalanced than usual. Savage's group lost its volunteer legislative lobbyist after the 1983 session, and with declining volunteerism and an annual budget of $5,000, has not been able to find or hire a replacement. Savage was able to break away from her job to talk to legislators on only three days during the current session and never testified in a hearing on any bill.
Unlike the situation in Maryland, that unbalance has left it up to individual legislators to provide whatever muscle consumers have in the Virginia General Assembly. And while some of them consider themselves strong consumer advocates, they said it frequently is difficult to figure out exactly where the consumer's interest lies.
DuVal and Del. Kenneth R. Plum (R-Fairfax), for example, worry about an interstate banking bill that Plum says "was essentially written by the industry" and is now making its way through the legislature.
"I don't know enough about interstate banking to know if it's a good thing for consumers or a bad thing," says DuVal. "Theoretically a good consumer lobby would have told us."
Some delegates found themselves equally uncertain about the potential consumer impact of a bill to regulate telephone rates for local governments. Since no consumer lobbyist showed up at a hearing on the bill, members of a House committee had to satisfy themselves with the answer of a lobbyist for a major telephone company.
In other cases, the issue has been clear but the opposition overwhelming.
Another Consumer Council priority, a bill to allow individuals who have contributed in some degree to the cause of an accident to sue other parties for "comparative negligence" was defeated in committee.
In what Cohen calls another "outrage," a Senate committee killed a bill that would have limited service charges on loans by second-mortgage lenders. Controversy over the bill was heightened by the fact that one of its committee opponents, Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk), provides legal services to one of the firms that would be regulated by the bill.
Babalas, who estimated his income last year as the firm's general counsel at between $5,000 to $10,000, says he saw no conflict of interest in voting on the bill because he does not represent the company on anything to do with the interest rates it charges.
Despite this year's defeats, Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) argues that the legislature is somewhat more sensitive to consumer issues now than it was 12 years ago when he was first elected. Plum agrees, though he says "it's definitely probusiness down here, no doubt about it."
Still, with no consumer lobbyist to tip off sympathetic legislators, DuVal says an anticonsumer measure will often "get off and running before anyone realizes it. The flags go up, but by that time it's out of a powerful committee or through one house . . . . And there you are."
Sponsoring a bill to help consumers is no easier than stopping one that hurts them. Cohen says he knows exactly what to expect from consumers groups next year when he introduces a bill to limit interest charges on late credit card payments. "Oh yeah, I'll get help," says the Alexandria lawyer. "They'll pat me on the back and say, 'I'll come down and testify' and I'll have to do all the work.
"They might come down for a day but lobbying is putting heat on . . . getting your 5,000 members to put out a letter. You hardly ever get a letter from them."
From talking to her counterparts elsewhere, Savage is convinced that consumers put up stronger fights in some other states, though she says "it's a mixed bag."
In some states such as Maryland, according to Savage, the consumer protection division of state government plays an aggressive role of watchdog over legislation. In other states, consumer groups such as her own, have devoted themselves to aggressive fund-raising in order to use a full-time lobbyist.
Thus far, the board of the all-volunteer, 400-member Virginia Consumer Council has shied away from raising funds for a paid staff, fearing it would divert attention from issues and foster internal conflicts.
Savage's own view is that sending a lobbyist to Richmond "is the most important thing we could be about.
"It's the well-financed lobbyists who call the shots," she says. "For me, it's real heartbreaking that that is the case on so many issues." CONSUMER WINS/LOSSES
Increased regulation of firms that sell "time-share arrangements," a type of prepaid vacation plan, was approved.
* Loss -- A bill limiting service charges on loans by certain small finance companies was defeated.
* Loss -- Inclusion of citizen representatives on health regulatory boards was defeated.
* Loss -- A bill permitting lawsuits by persons who have contributed to the cause of accidents in which they claim injury or damage was defeated.