Now nearing the end of her third term as state senator, Janet Howell knows what to expect. Before heading off to Richmond on Sunday, the Reston Democrat sat down at her North Reston home to talk about her expectations for the upcoming "short session" of the General Assembly.
Q: With only a day or two before you pack your bags for Richmond, what are your expectations for the upcoming session?
Howell: This is going to be a session where we set priorities for the state and the choices we have are pretty miserable, but I am really pleased that I am on the finance committee so I will get to be making most of those choices.
Q: And what are your priorities?
Howell: My priorities will be protecting public education, including higher education. I want to be certain that our most vulnerable citizens are not injured by the process.
Q: How tough a task is that considering the state of the economy, the state's budget mess and the fact that your party is in the minority?
Howell: Will it be difficult? Of course. But I think it will depend on what happens with the economy in the next few weeks and what the projections turn out to be. If it doesn't get any worse, and in fact we have bottomed out, I think we have a reasonable prospect of succeeding in terms of public and private education. If it continues to fall, however, it is going to get brutal and bloody.
Q: Only a reasonable prospect of succeeding? That doesn't sound very optimistic.
Howell: Part of the fascinating factor in this session is that it is an election year for the entire Legislature. Everybody is up. So it could become highly political and contentious.
Howell: Yes, could. But I hope it won't. The other possibility is that people will say, 'Listen, this is too serious for the state to play those games and let's roll up our sleeves and find some solutions.' I hope that is the direction.
Q: So, if you were a betting woman …?
Howell: I'd bet that it would be political, but I don't want to be part of it. (Laughing)
Q: What sort of signs or bellwether bills should your constituents be on the look out for that might signal whether or not the session is productive or overly political?
Howell: Bellwether bills, hmm. Well, I am putting in a bill to tax the production of cigarettes in order to help public education. It will be interesting to see what kind of response that has. There will be a lot of the far-right social agenda bills. I think it is an effort on their part to take the public's eyes off the really serious problems that face our state.
Q: As a legislator, how frustrating is that?
Howell: It can be frustrating especially when it is so transparent what some of the delegates are doing. They are not interested in public education. We spend so much time in committee on some of these bills that it cuts back on time on important issues like school testing, pupil ratios, year-round schools, substantive issues don't get the time.
Q: So what can you guys get accomplished, do you think?
Howell: We will do a budget ….
Q: Will anybody be satisfied?
Howell: Probably nobody will be happy. I know I won't be happy because we will have to cut programs I believe in, some of which I created. I think we are in the right direction of protecting everything we can but at the same time streamlining government, reassessing how we do things the most efficient way possible.
Q: You always hear about streamlining and cutting government waste, but how much money is there to save by cutting waste?
Howell: There has been tremendous mismanagement in several areas. Everybody knows that VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation] has been a disaster and a disgrace. [Democratic] Gov. [Mark] Warner is doing a great job getting that back on track, but will a lot of money be saved by getting that back? I don't think so. It's incremental.
Q: So what are your constituents saying to you?
Howell: I get a constant stream of people coming up to me and saying, 'Save our program, cut someone else's.' The fact of the matter is, most of the programs are valuable. I'm hearing from a lot of people who are relying on our human services programs — people with retarded children, mentally ill adult children, parents of children who have been sexually abused by others who need support services. I have heard from people who need health programs and nursing homes, most are barely making a profit and now we are about to freeze their payments. At the same time, I am hearing from constituents who are so upset that the nursing homes are understaffed. It's just not a pretty picture.
Q: Speaking of pictures that are not very pretty. Let's talk transportation. Is there any fear among the Northern Virginia delegation that the electorate will punish you all for your support of the sales-tax referendum, a referendum that as we all know now was soundly defeated in November?
Howell: I think we are actively reassessing and trying to figure out how to make more savings. The voters, each individually, were trying to send a message, but unfortunately, the message that was received in Richmond and other parts of the state was very different than what people thought they were saying. So it is complicating our challenge.
Q: So, in your opinion, what were the voters trying to say?
Howell: I think they were saying they didn't trust VDOT. They didn't trust that the money was going to be spent the way, by law, it would have had to be. They didn't trust that the growth issues would be tended to. They didn't trust that environmental issues would be taken care of.
Q: With hindsight being 20/20, how would you have handled it differently?
Howell: I said all along that it would be very difficult to pass it unless public education was a part of it. I think that was shown to be correct.
Q: Is there added pressure to be on the finance committee? Seems like those legislators not on budget or finance can then more easily wash their hands of whatever outcomes result?
Howell: No way, I fought to get elected and I fought to get on that committee. It's added pressure and it is very, very time consuming. I like that.
Q: How different is it being a senator now then it was during the boom times of the late 1990s?
Howell: It's night and day. It used to be that I thought we would be able to move this state forward. Now, it's a matter of slowing the decline. I really hope the voters are going to become actively engaged in letting us know what they want.
Q: Can we get back to "moving the state forward?"
Howell: If I weren't an optimist, I wouldn't run for office.