|First, let's look at a bill introduced by State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, a Democrat, who thought she had found a way to get even the most recalcitrant Republican to go along with a "revenue enhancement" that would add $33 million to state coffers this year. Granted, that's just a drop in a $4 billion bucket, but it would have been better than nothing.
As things stand now, if a person books a hotel room through online sites like Orbitz or Expedia, the site that has already prebooked the room at a discounted price pays hotel and sales taxes on that discounted amount, not on the higher price that it actually charges the buyer of the room. In other words, those sites get to remit a lower tax than the rest of us
Whipple's bill, which was well on its way to enactment by passing the State Senate 40-0 and gaining the approval of a House of Delegates subcommittee 10-0, then became a political football in a game of lobbying played by a veteran of that game in Richmond. Guess who won that one? Do you even have to ask?
Between the time SB432, sailed through the Senate and the House subcommittee and before its scheduled hearing by the full House Finance Committee, the money started its work.
The Interactive Travel Services Association, the online booking companies' trade group, got wind of the bill and immediately hired Benson Dendy, a veteran Richmond lobbyist. Dendy started working the phones and calling legislators he had lobbied for years.
In the 1980's Dendy was responsible for lobbying the governor's bills in the General Assembly, for both Chuck Robb and Gerald Baliles. In 2002 he was appointed by Gov. Mark Warner to the Council on the Southern Community of the Southern Growth Policies Board. Now, he works for a lobbying outfit called The Vectre Corp.
On its website the Vectre Corp. says that its "hands-on approach is essential to the development of a comprehensive and effective lobbying effort. We identify and arrange introductions and meetings with important elected officials and key decision-makers, develop position papers and committee presentations, regularly testify before committees on behalf of our clients, and lobby legislators."
In order to pretend that pressure is coming from the "grassroots," Vectre also will organize "letter-writing campaigns and phone contacts directed to elected officials, letters-to-the-editor, newsletters, and mass mailings."
Vectre was hired on a Friday afternoon. The following Monday morning, industry representatives were lined up to testify against the bill at the Finance Committee's last scheduled meeting of the legislative session.
When asked to explain why she had introduced the bill, Whipple said, "It is not a new tax. The question is, what amount is it levied on? It's not complicated. It's a tax on the retail value of the room. Virginia is losing tons and tons of money because of this loophole."
Del. Harry "Bob" Purkey (R-Virginia Beach), the committee chairman, said it seemed the bill might have "unintended consequences." He scheduled an extra meeting for the next day to consider it further.
At that meeting, Purkey said: "My phone's ringing off the hook." He had heard from hoteliers, real estate companies and travel agents, he said, all expressing "grave concern" about the bill. I guess that's the "grassroots" campaign that Vectre brags about
Del. Ben Cline (R-Rockbridge County), chairman of the subcommittee that unanimously passed the bill, said it had received a full hearing there and should go forward. "I think we need to respect the work of the subcommittee," he said.
However, money and influence talk in Richmond. Reversing the subcommittee's unanimous recommendation, the committee voted 12-8 to carry the bill over to the 2011 session.
In the second instance of money greasing the wheels in the legislature, the Senate passed three education bills that McDonnell wanted, none of which will help public education get through this horrible budget year. Indeed, those bills - making it easier for charter schools to be approved, for laboratory schools at universities, and for online schools - could take further money from public education because state aid money follows the student to these alternatives to public school.
As I mentioned earlier, lobbyists for K12 sat in on meetings among McDonnell administration officials, legislators and representatives from education groups over the past few weeks as they hashed out a compromise to the governor's education overhaul package.
Now, I don't have a gripe per se with online courses and schools. Nor do I think that charter schools shouldn't be more numerous in Virginia. I just am angry that this is a focus of the legislature the same year that it is slashing funds for public education.
I am doubly angry at the blatant way the people who profess to represent you and me in Richmond routinely sell themselves to whoever gives them campaign contributions and also has the money to hire lobbyists to woe legislators.
Virtual schools already operate in the state, but the Virginia Board of Education has no control over them. Newman's bill, at least, would allow the state to regulate new online schools. That's really good. The catch is in what comes next.
The Board of Education would also designate preferred vendors for such operations. Ah, yes. K12 was simply buying a market. And, look how cheap it was! For a paltry $57,000 the corporation pretty much guaranteed itself a designation as a "preferred vendor."
K12's lobbyists were former state delegate Thomas Bolvin and attorney Stephen Horton. They were primarily involved in discussions about virtual schools, people familiar with the meetings said.
"I wouldn't say in any way, shape or form they impeded the process," said Pat Lacy, special counsel to the Virginia School Boards Association. "As to how they came to be in the room, I can't speak to that."
OK, I'll speak to that.
K12 gave money in a bipartisan way to those legislators who sit on education committees in the legislature. It gave much bigger bucks to Bob McDonnell to guarantee itself a seat at the table as the virtual schools law was being written. After all, he sells himself at a higher price than a mere delegate or state senator.
(Maybe there's a hierarchy for the purchase of politicians, much like the one that differentiates street walkers from call girls.)
So, that's how K12 got in the room. It's "democracy in the Second Gilded Age,"...Virginia-style.