The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star has a fitting tribute to a speaker that, while no favorite of self-declared conservatives, did a great deal for the cause of conservatism in Virginia:
Howell says the praise that means the most to him involves lasting accomplishments for the commonwealth. Among them: legislation banning smoking in restaurants and establishment of a tax-credit program that has created conservation easements to preserve some 741,000 acres across Virginia. Both were approved during Democrat Tim Kaine’s term as governor.
A fiscal conservative, Howell didn’t use the speakership to steer lots of state projects to the Fredericksburg area. Unlike some past assembly leaders, there are no public buildings or college stadiums named after him. He’s OK with that, adding: “I shouldn’t get credit for spending the state’s money for something they were going to do anyway.”
Howell, downplaying his influence, says staying open to others makes a difference. “I haven’t had an original idea in my life, but by listening to people, my constituents, I was able to get some things done.”
One item that Speaker Howell should get credit for that is rarely mentioned? Reforming the Virginia Retirement System and making is solvent again. Folks have no idea what sort of bullet we dodged in Richmond. Yet it was Howell who quietly applied the screws and made sure that VRS would keep its promises to our state and local retirees.
Howell could be infuriating to conservatives at times, especially social conservatives who eagerly seek a more pro-active stance on questions such as marriage and the defense of human life. Howell proved the pragmatist on such questions, remembering that the majority mattered, and even if we could only get a fraction of our agenda pushed through? A fraction was better than nothing at all, as a Democratic majority would surely guarantee.
There were fiscal issues as well. Every four years, a new crisis would emerge, and every four years House leadership would be expected to crack — the 2004 Chichester tax hike, the disastrous 2007 Frankenstein of HB3202 (which started as a “no tax hike” solution and morphed quickly into a tax hike indeed), the unnecessary 2013 McDonnell transportation tax hike (which paved roads in rural Virginia, but never solved the disconnect between land use decisions and transportation dollars). These episodes never quite enamored the conservative base with Howell’s leadership, to be sure…
…and yet. Howell managed to build ironclad majorities year after year after almost losing former Speaker Vance Wilkins’ sizable majority early on. Today it stands at remarkable 66 seats in lines that were drawn to provide a 60 seat majority — not an unremarkable accomplishment.
Critics may argue “majorities to what ends” — compliments should be paid to the fact that in the hands of the holdovers of the Byrd Machine, not only would Virginia be utterly insolvent, but Medicaid expansion and a litany of horribles on education would have sailed through the House of Delegates without Howell’s steadying hand. Virginia’s business ranking — long the envy of other states until wrecked by McAuliffe’s instability — was entirely a product of Republican leadership in the General Assembly. The springboard for economic growth and fiscal good government will not receive a statue or a plaque… but it will all bear Howell’s good name.
So kudos to Speaker Bill Howell for a job well done during perilous and divisive times. Partisans on the left and the right will not want to hear it, but Howell’s legacy of passing on a better Commonwealth than the one he inherited should be a lesson for aspiring politicos of any political stripe.