Recently elected to her fourth term as state senator, Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) heads south to Richmond as one of the most senior members of her minority party. But before leaving for Richmond over the weekend, the Reston Democrat took time out to talk about her expectations for the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
Q: How do you feel as you prepare to head back down to Richmond?
Howell: Determined. This is going to be a really rough session and I am determined to do what is in the best long-term interest of my district and its people.
Q: That being?
Howell: Weighing all the tax proposals and coming up with the one that best prepares the state for its future.
Q: I think it is safe to say that what the governor has proposed will look a lot different than its current state.
Howell: Oh yes, everything is going to change. Sen. [John] Chichester (R-28) will forward a proposal on Monday. I think there will be lots of debate and maneuvering and everything will change. I hope that in the end, we will have the best possible system.
Q: How hopeful are you?
Howell: I am prepared to sit in Richmond until Hell freezes over.
Q: It is pretty cold out there today.
Howell: [Laughs] This is going to be, without question, a brutal session. We will just see if we can get the job done and on time, or we might have to just wait for people to come around.
Q: Sounds like you think you will be there longer than 60 days. You think that is a distinct possibility?
Howell: I hope not, but I think there is a good chance. I think this will be a prime example of just how important the end game is in the legislature.
Q: Elaborate on that …
Howell: One thing that I have learned over the years is that it is the last few days where most of the major decisions are made and you need to know the various techniques to get your way at the very end and I think this year will be an excellent example of that dynamic.
Q: How much will it be the House stymieing things, in your mind?
Howell: Oh, it will be the House for sure. The Senate will come forward with a plan that will probably be the governor’s and Sen. Chichester’s bills. The House majority is clearly resistant and we will just have to see how long they will be resistant. By the way, I think both Gov. Warner and Sen. Chichester are very courageous. One is a Democrat and one is a Republican, so that is a very non-partisan comment. It takes real courage for both of them to come forward like this.
Q: Besides tax restructuring, what other bills will be priorities for you?
Howell: I have several significant bills. One is to update the state’s quarantine laws. They are very outmoded and we are not prepared to deal with a problem like SARS or bio-terrorist attacks. That is a very important bill. I am putting back my bill to make clergy mandated reporters of child abuse. I am hopeful that this will pass this time. I am putting the administration’s adult protective service reform. That legislation would provide more protection for seniors. In addition, I am putting in a bill to protect the Transportation Trust Fund and that would be a constitutional amendment … I also have a cigarette tax bill.
Q: Is the state finally going to get that increased?
Howell: I think something will actually happen this year. Whether it will go as far as I would like, I don’t know.
Q: How big is your increase?
Howell: My bill is for 65 cents a pack with 25 cents going to health initiatives and the other 40 cents going to public education based on enrollment, so the money would be dispersed based on how many students each locality have.
Q: What is the likelihood of getting a constitutional amendment to protect the Transportation Trust Fund?
Howell: The problem with it this year is that it will probably be carried over until next year. Constitutional amendments have to pass twice, once before a general election and once after a general election, so I suspect that the committee will carry it over. I hope not, because I would like to get it passed this year and then again, two years later, but typically they do get carried over. Therefore, it will be in the queue.
Q: Is anything going to happen with the deregulation of energy in the state? Is that a good move?
Howell: I think so, yes. I think most everybody agrees that it is a good move.
Q: Given the recent state Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts, I noticed at last week’s forum in Reston, there were a few people in attendance to voice their concerns about the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act." What do you make of that?
Howell: I think we will have many social agenda items by the far right. We do every year, unfortunately. This year something is happening that I am a part of and I am excited about. We are forming a reproduction rights caucus and I am co-chair.
Q: First time you have had such a caucus? Why is it necessary?
Howell: Yes, it is brand new. Last session there were very serious attempts to undercut access to contraception including the birth control pill. That told us that we are moving to a completely different level way beyond abortion rights. So, we are getting quite organized and we decided to start a caucus. You are the first reporter to know this; I have not told anyone else.
Q: What are your constituents telling you these days?
Howell: Actually, it has been pretty quiet. I am mostly hearing support for the governor’s proposal. I am still hearing a lot that people want that cigarette tax raised.
Q: What about the gasoline tax? Will there be any movement there?
Howell: Del. Harry Parrish (R-50) has a bill in and he is quite optimistic about it. It would raise the gas tax 6.5 cents. Sen. Chichester’s proposal is going to have something about transportation.
Q: You said that this session is going to be tough. Last year was an election year and it was, by most accounts, a rough session. How does the dynamic change in Richmond when it is not an election year?
Howell: This is going to be a watershed year. We will see whether or not Virginia faces its chronic fiscal problems or not and that makes it different from every other year. The previous two years, we have been cutting virtually every program in the state. We have eliminated many programs. We’ve made things just as lean as possible and now we are confronted with such a shortfall of another billion dollars that most reasonable people realize that we are going to have to raise some revenues.