Last year's General Assembly session saw an unprecedented push by Northern Virginia business leaders, who lobbied for a sales tax referendum to pay for improvements to area roads and public transportation.

This year, fresh from a resounding defeat of the referendum, they head to Richmond knowing that no new money is available for transportation projects and expressing concern that funding cuts may occur.

Business leaders acknowledged that the state's $1.2 billion budget shortfall will be the main issue during this year's legislative session, which begins Wednesday. Although they still want to reduce the region's traffic congestion, this is probably not the year to ask for more money, said Randy Collins, president of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce.

"Is the issue dead? Who knows?" he said. "The deficit is going to affect everything. We're certainly concerned about transportation, but we're also concerned about public schools, government and public safety. Not to mention the state employees who may lose their jobs.

"It is a dire time now for the Commonwealth of Virginia."

Larry Rosenstrauch, head of the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, said a big change is coming in this year's lobbying efforts.

"People were quite animated about the referendum last year," he said. "But transportation is just one of several goals the commonwealth wants to achieve long-term. That . . . . has been postponed. When we had our riches, it was, how fast could you spend it? Now there is a fundamental rethinking about what should the government do."

Business leaders pushed last year for a half-cent increase in the sales tax, but that was rejected in the referendum on Nov. 5. They don't appear to have a Plan B for building roads or expanding public transportation to reduce congestion.

"Needless to say, a lot of political capital was spent for over two years," Collins said. "I think we're going to be choosing our issues and battles extremely carefully."

Business leaders in Loudoun are still formalizing their agenda, he said. "The word is the 2003 session will have one theme, and that is the deficit. It's not a good year to push through new budgets."

At the time of the referendum defeat, business leaders vowed to bring more money to the Northern Virginia area. But that seems a distant memory now as the state has cut services to ease the deficit.

"We don't anticipate there are going to be too many people asking for new funding," Collins said.

Laurie Wieder, president of the Prince William Regional Chamber, expects much the same.

"Last year, we knew the budget would be tight, but I think in the past year, it certainly has become much clearer as to how much money needs to be cut," she said. "I think it's been startling to everyone. Given the situation, we think that simply asking for more money is not going to produce the results we need. We feel we need to go back and take a look at the system and how it all was allocated."

The Prince William chamber's agenda this year will focus less on asking for new funds and more on requesting increased fiscal accountability by the state, Wieder said.

"There's not a whole lot of money in the General Assembly," she said. "Transportation and education are two primary goals because they are so important for business. We need those roads to get commerce back and forth and education so we have a strong workforce."

But for now, she said, a large focus of Prince William businesses will be to demand "greater fiscal accountability from the state government."

The chamber's agenda, which the Greater Manassas Chamber of Commerce also backs, asks for "more performance measures so we can plan ahead for where the money is going and see whether it's achieved the desired results," Wieder said. "Then we can better use the sparse resources we have so we can then invest money appropriately."

Another major priority for the Prince William chamber relates to an item added at the last moment last year to help balance the budget. The accelerated sales tax reporting item calls for certain businesses to estimate or project their sales taxes for each quarter a month in advance, based on previous years' earnings.

But those earnings were likely higher than now, Wieder said, due to the slow economy. "The General Assembly is balancing the budget on the backs of small businesses," she said. "This is . . . a problem that needs to be fixed right away."

Prince William's agenda also includes a request that the formula for transportation funds be based on road usage rather than vehicle mileage. Some roads in Northern Virginia are shorter than those in, say, Hampton Roads, but are traveled more often. The formula change would result in better allocation of funds, Wieder said.

That is also a major point for Fairfax County's chamber. William D. Lecos, president and chief executive, said the chamber will "thoroughly back anyone who puts forth a funding formula" that favors population density versus vehicle miles.

But the group does not expect much to come to the county from this year's assembly.

"We're calling this the tourniquet session. . . . It's not an environment that lends itself to any kind of optimism to meet the needs in Northern Virginia," Lecos said. "That said, we're focusing on the core of our agenda, albeit recognizing our best hopes are, at best, marginal improvements over the status quo."

The defeat of a regional sales tax increase, coupled with a state budget crunch, has left no clear funding for road improvements.