| Rack up another one for corporate control of our government. The Republican Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates just forced passage of a special piece of legislation benefitting one company, Crown Cork & Seal, limiting its liability as a result of law suits relating to asbestos. The bill had failed in committee two years ago and again last year, even though it was sent to a different committee. This year, in an unusual show of open arm twisting, Howell not only changed the makeup of that committee by removing two Democrats (Northern Virginia Delegates Kenneth Plum and Mark Sickles), replacing them with Republicans who backed the legislation, but he personally lobbied both Republican and Democratic Delegates, a sight last seen in 2007 when he managed to pass the transportation bill with its abuser fees. As a result, House Bill 629, sponsored by Terry Kilgore (R-Scott), was reported out of committee, passed 49-48 in the House, and sent to the Democratic-controlled Senate for consideration
|What was in HB 629 that was so important? To begin, it was based on model asbestos liability legislation drafted by the ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), a pro-business outfit founded nearly 40 years ago by conservative icon Paul Weyrich, that Anita Kumar, writing in The Washington Post on 10 February 2010, says "ghostwrites" bills on matters pushed by its membership. Membership costs $7,000 for companies, $3,000 for non-profits, but only $50 for legislators. It includes some 2,000 legislators like Speaker Howell and 300 private companies like ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and Crown Cork. Ms. Kumar quotes Alan Rosenthal, public policy professor at Rutgers, as saying that ALEC is "unique" among groups which lobby state governments because "it lets corporations have a vote" and "it's another device they can use to advance their agenda." Mind you, this was before the recent Supreme Court decision extending First Amendment rights to corporations.
HB 629, titled "Successor corporations; applicability of limitations on asbestos-related liabilities," is so designed that it specially protects Crown Cork by limiting cumulative "successor asbestos-related liabilities of a corporation to the fair market value of the total gross assets of transferor" from the date of the merger. Crown Cork got into asbestos insulation when it bought Mundet, a small family business, in 1963 for $7 million. It has since been named in over 300,000 asbestos claims, has paid some $600 million in expenses, and has reduced its workforce, threatening to close its Virginia factories to save money. To be fair, that's a nice piece of change, and it is possible that other companies may be in similar situations but have yet to speak up, so Crown Cork's general counsel does not consider HB 629 to be "special legislation." In the last 4 years eleven states have passed asbestos legislation similar to ALEC's model.
Kumar points out that, according to Virginia Public Access Project, Crown Cork shelled out $100,000 to 46 Virginia legislators or their PACs, including most members of the House and Senate committees which considered the bills---- some $8,000 went to Howell's PAC. State records, says Kumar, show that Crown Cork paid 4 lobbyists $25,095 two years ago in a failed effort to get the bill passed, another $84,167 on 7 lobbyists last year, and re-hired the same lobbyists this year.
Delegates Plum and Sickles are under no illusions why they were kicked off the relevant committee: they voted against the bill last year. "Why would a 28-year veteran and former chairman be removed?" asked Plum. Richard Ottinger, a lawyer for Owens Illinois (which itself has 2 factories in Virginia) pointed out to the committee which vetted the bill, that, if it passed, Owens Illinois would be liable for more asbestos claims if Crown Cork were relieved of liability. He said that the bill "specifically benefits one company to the detriment of other companies." No doubt Owens Illinois will have to increase its contributions to legislators' PACs.
Memo to Supreme Court: Yes, indeed, money does talk.