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politics: Loose Change

What's a lobbyist to do when there's no money to gain?

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"This year will be exceedingly stressful," says Mark Singer, president of Advocates of Virginia and a lobbyist for construction and education groups. "What a lot of legislators will be telling people privately is, 'You don't have a snowball's chance, but thanks for coming by.' It's kind of like you woke up one day and you only had 70 percent of the money you needed to pay the bills. It changes the way you do business."

Lobbyists are the punching bags of politics. But without them government would screech to a stop. Legislators use them to explain the issues, to draft legislation, to act as spokespeople for advocacy groups and businesses.

The legislators meet for a "short session" this year from Jan. 8 to Feb. 22. So far in 2003, 625 lobbyists have registered to represent 575 clients. The office of the secretary of the commonwealth expects that to go up sharply as the session starts — last year's session had 894 lobbyists registered.

But by most accounts, this year will be different. With little money to be had, lobbyists will be elbowing each other — primarily to keep their clients from being hurt too badly in this year's budget.

"When you and your friend are being chased by a bear," explains Doug Koelemay, a technology-industry lobbyist with Williams Mullen Strategies, "you don't have to outrun the bear — you just have to outrun your friend. That's kind of the way it is this year."

Says George C. Peyton, a lobbyist for the Retail Merchants Association of Greater Richmond, "A lot of special-interest groups are going to protect what they have in the budget. We're going to have to watch very carefully to be sure our interests are not hurt."

Most watchers of the General Assembly predict that this will be a session marked by low-grade stress, not by fireworks. For one thing, all the legislators are up for election this year, making them unlikely to rock boats. For another, there will be only one topic anyone is likely to remember.

"The indications are now that the legislators will be consumed by the budget," says high-profile lobbyist H. Benson Dendy III, whose Richmond-based business, Vectre Corp., represents companies such as CSX and Sentara Health Care, as well as cities including Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

Dendy says he doesn't expect lobbyists to gain much in the way of funding for studies and the like. Instead, Dendy says, he and his fellow lobbyists will be fighting defensively, to keep clients from losing.

"To reduce cuts … or not to make them any worse — you're going to be fighting on many fronts," Dendy says. "It's a lot more severe than in other years."

This being Virginia, the state's lobbyists are behaving politely and asking for less. But just because you're not asking for money doesn't mean you won't be affected by the shortage. A lot of lobbyists worry that the overwhelming focus on the budget will take attention away from other issues.

"When you've got people so focused on the budget … there certainly will be fallout," says 30-year lobbying veteran Reggie Jones, a partner with Williams Mullen.

But, Jones adds, "there's going to be plenty else going on."

Indeed, the rate of bills being filed so far this year suggests that this session will see a full plate of 2,500 to 3,000 bills — just like other years, say Assembly-watchers. This year, though, most of those bills are unlikely to seek funds or tax breaks.

"The number of requests for budget amendments is dramatically reduced this year," says state Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Glen Allen, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. "There's simply an understanding that we are in a budget crunch." That's reflected a few ways, Stosch adds. For example, "I've had one request for tax-exempt status from a group this year — usually I get six or seven. And I've had zero requests for exemption from sales tax."

And the lobbyists have scaled back their clients' wish lists. This year, for the fifth year in a row, Peyton was asked by his retailer clients to get a bill put in to create a weeklong "sales tax holiday" to spur sales, like ones already in place in Maryland, New York, South Carolina and a handful of other states.

"This year I told them, 'There's no way that you can do this,'" Peyton says. Instead, he'll be pushing for a bill to let the retailers pay their customers' sales tax on purchases made in a particular week.

Many ambitions are being scaled back in this way. And many lobbyists are preparing to face clients who will have to be told what they have lost.

"I'll be glad when February is over," sighs lobbyist Singer. S

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