‘Shootout at General Assembly’

‘Shootout at General Assembly’

Howell tells AAUW how Richmond’s budget impasse on transportation is a ‘true crisis.’

Each year, state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) tries to come up with a phrase describing the year’s legislative session.

Howell called the historic clash over taxes two years ago, when former Governor Mark Warner (D) stretched out budget negotiations with a Republican House and Senate, the “endless session.”

“But now we’re way past that,” she said, describing the unprecedented length of this year’s budget impasse. So, at a Reston-Herndon American Association of University Women meeting Thursday, May 18, she told a crowd of about 30 people that she’s had to look elsewhere for a more apropos slogan.

“This session I’m calling the shootout at the General Assembly, and I’m speaking figuratively and literally,” said Howell, referring to the battle over the budget, caused mostly by disagreement over transportation spending, and the accidental gun fired in Del. John S. "Jack" Reid’s office in January, luckily not injuring anyone.

“[A shootout], to me, is now a metaphor for what is going on — we are truly at loggerheads,” said Howell.

The scheduled 2006 General Assembly session ended March 11, but with an agreement on transportation funding in the budget now two months overdue, lawmakers have reached uncharted waters. The current budget expires June 30. “We could be going off a cliff and we don’t know exactly what will happen,” said Howell. “And local governments are in a fix because they don’t know what they will be getting.”

THE HITCH, Howell says, is a deal on transportation funding. Divisions between parties and between the two legislative bodies, which are both controlled by Republicans, have prevented compromise up until now.

“[Democrats] want at least $1 billion in transportation spending. We want it to be sustainable, dedicated and equitable,” said Howell. “But we also need to be sure that it doesn’t come from the General Fund and take away from priorities like education, health care and public safety.”

“Warner won the last standoff,” said Reston resident John Lovaas, who attended the meeting last week. But what if the Republicans don’t back off this time, Lovaas asked Howell.

Howell said Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is facing a much different dynamic in the House of Delegates this year compared to two years ago. “They changed the rules of the House. Now, the Speaker [of the House] can take anyone off a committee at any time for any reason,” said Howell. The result, she said, is that Republican delegates have been pulled from committees for breaking with the GOP leadership.

In addition, a new rule allows legislation to be sent to a subcommittee, where legislation can be defeated by an unrecorded vote before ever reaching the floor of the House, said Howell.

“So, now you have a lot of delegates squirming. Their regions are demanding that they do something, but they can’t,” she said, because moderate Republican delegates have to worry about retaliation if they decide to split with their party’s leadership.

She said Kaine has the opportunity to be a real leader and guide lawmakers through the deadlock on transportation spending, which she called a “true crisis.” She also pointed out that 39 percent of Virginia’s bridges don’t meet federal standards.

JUDI ORNOFF, a member of Reston-Herndon’s AAUW, wanted to know how the $1 billion of transportation funding would be used, if passed.

Howell said that Northern Virginia would be “disadvantaged” partly because some of the money will be allocated using a metric based on miles traveled rather than congestion. But she said in terms of mass transit, things like bus rapid transit and rail, Northern Virginia would get its fair share.

Howell lamented that she was not able to block an amendment on marriage from going forward. “It will be on the ballot next year,” she said. If the amendment is passed, it will hurt gays and lesbians, said Howell, who said she was vehemently opposed to it.

“This amendment, in my opinion, was introduced to help [U.S. Sen.] George Allen [D-Va.] to get out his base,” said Howell, referring to Allen’s reelection campaign this year.

THE SESSION included several victories, said Howell. She introduced a bill that will require members of the clergy to become mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse or neglect. “We got it passed this year,” said Howell. She added that lawmakers passed several pieces of legislation to crack down on sexual predators.

Howell said that new revenue will be dedicated to mental health facilities in this year’s budget. “That will go through and it will be very significant,” said Howell.

She said she’s worked closely with other Democratic legislators to block legislation that would close down family planning centers. “We’ve always been able to defeat it, usually by one vote,” she said.

Howell also took time to praise new dangerous dog legislation that will increase penalties against vicious dogs and their owners.

Part of the budget, she said includes money to devise “a real plan” for the avian flu, should it break out.