Some of the senior Republicans in Virginia's House of Delegates are chafing at the poor grades they received Wednesday in the annual ratings compiled by one of the state's largest business organizations.
The review, which follows a General Assembly session in which many of these legislators tried unsuccessfully to block tax increases that businesses favored, rates them as only "occasional supporters of pro-business views."
House Republican leaders accused the business group, the Virginia Foundation for Research and Economic Education (Virginia FREE), of purposely skewing the report to favor liberals and Democrats for the second year in a row.
The group gives each lawmaker a "business rating," using a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 indicating strong support for business.
Last year, FREE's ratings prompted House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) to condemn the group after he received a business rating of 70. This year, his rating dropped to 54, based in large part on his opposition to bills that increased taxes.
"That shows how irrelevant Virginia FREE has become and how political they have become," Howell said. "They don't speak for the business concerns that I know and deal with."
Howell said he and other GOP lawmakers "don't really care" what Virginia FREE thinks about their voting record.
J. Scott Leake, the executive director of the Joint Republican Caucus, which represents Republicans in the House and Senate, said the report "doesn't pass the straight-faced test. As I walk around this building, people are laughing and slapping their thighs."
Others in the legislature said they take the report, which has been issued annually since 1988, very seriously.
Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), whose business rating of 66 tagged him as a "frequent supporter of pro-business views," said he is proud of the recognition. "We are going to be touting our support for education, jobs, economic development," Moran said of his fellow Democrats. "This group just confirms our support for those issues."
Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), who received a rating of 82, said he is proud of his score. He called the group "extremely relevant" and said it reflects the interests of business groups large and small.
Virginia FREE was founded when Democrats controlled the legislature as a vehicle to press for more business-friendly laws. At that time, its barbs were most often aimed at Democrats.
Now, Republicans have taken over, and many in the House have split with the group's leaders over the necessity for higher taxes.
K. Clayton Roberts, Virginia FREE's executive director, dismissed Howell's criticism, noting that his group represents 250 businesses that collectively made $13 million in campaign contributions to lawmakers during the last election cycle.
"That doesn't sound like irrelevance to me," he said. "It appears that many in the majority are losing touch with the issues that are important to business."
Republicans in the House are also at odds with some lobbyists who represent many of the state's largest businesses.
Last week, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus called for an investigation of a veteran lobbyist after she rejected several requests for campaign donations from GOP lawmakers.
Virginia FREE based its 2004 ratings on 19 votes cast by lawmakers during the extended legislative session that ended in early May. The group focused its attention this year on votes involving the debate on taxes.
In its report, the group criticizes previous lawmakers for failing to address the state's needs in education, transportation, health care and public safety.
"The mantra of 'no new taxes' created an environment in which no policymaker would vote to raise revenues," the report said. "Business and political leaders concluded that a credible state budget would require additional revenue. And this year, lawmakers responded."
In the report, delegates and senators who voted in favor of increasing taxes by $1.5 billion over two years were given pro-business marks, while votes against tax increases were described as anti-business.
The reverse was true, however, when it came to voting on a Senate proposal to raise taxes by almost $4 billion. A vote for that plan was recorded as unfriendly to business. Roberts said the business community considered that proposal too large.