The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Howell tackles backlash on bill
RICHMOND—House Speaker Bill Howell says he’s “bothered” by backlash from anti-tax conservatives angry at him and others for passing a transportation funding reform bill that raises taxes.
But he said those doing the criticizing don’t understand the bill and have offered no alternatives of their own. And he has no regrets about backing the bill that passed, calling it an example of how Richmond works better than Washington.
“Sure, I’m unhappy when people are unhappy with what we’ve done,” Howell said in a telephone interview Friday. “I’m disappointed in some of the reaction. It’s understandable. I understand people’s concern about raising taxes. [But] leadership involves making decisions you think are best for the greater good, but may not appeal to everyone.”
The transportation bill, by the time it passed the House and Senate, was far different from the bill Gov. Bob McDonnell had proposed and Howell had agreed to sponsor. But both backed it as a compromise, a way to get a bill that would change the structure of Virginia’s transportation revenue stream through both houses.
The backlash from conservatives was swift and loud on social media.
They were apoplectic that McDonnell, who ran in 2009 promising not to raise taxes for transportation, had now done exactly that. A new Facebook page that appeared this week—called “Stop Largest Tax Increase in Virginia History”—features Howell’s, McDonnell’s and Sen. Tommy Norment’s faces across the top labeled “guilty of largest tax increase in Virginia history.”
Over the past week Republican blog Bearing Drift has posted essays from Republicans on both sides of the issue; some defend McDonnell and those who voted for the bill for being willing to step up and fix a massive problem, while others decry the bill as a betrayal of core Republican low-tax, small-government principles.
Howell said those protesting the vote don’t have a better idea for fixing the very real problem of a road maintenance funding shortfall. He said lawmakers have tried other solutions, but those didn’t create a long-term fix.
“The people who say, ‘You shouldn’t have addressed it the way you did’ don’t have alternate solutions, don’t have realistic solutions, and that’s the concern I have,” he said. “I think to be responsible they need to say, this is how you would have done it.”
ANGER OVER MEDICAID
All of the candidates running for the GOP nomination for attorney general and lieutenant governor this year have denounced the transportation bill. For several lieutenant governor candidates, particularly, it seems to exemplify the problems with “establishment” Republicans in Richmond.
Susan Stimpson, a Stafford County supervisor who is running for lieutenant governor, said in a post on her campaign’s Facebook page that McDonnell, Howell and others are “dead wrong.”
“Speaker Bill Howell and Governor McDonnell are friends. But they could not be more wrong,” she wrote. “And they could not have failed us at a more critical time. They abandoned our party’s principles by raising taxes and paving the way for Obamacare.”
Stimpson has vowed to work to repeal the transportation bill if she gets the nomination and is elected.
Howell said he’s particularly frustrated by lieutenant governor candidates who, he said, are perpetuating misleading information about the transportation bill and about new budget language on Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
While Senate Democrats insisted on Medicaid language that they now promote as a victory for expansion, Howell said that’s not the way Republicans should read it.
The language provides for a commission, made up mostly of legislators, that will review the federal government’s acquiescence to various waivers of Medicaid requirements that Virginia will request. Only if those waivers are granted would expansion move forward.
Democrats like that plan because it takes the decision to expand Medicaid out of the hands of the governor. Legislative Republicans accepted it for the same reasons.
But the House, Howell points out, named five delegates to the Medicaid commission who are not fans of expansion.
“I don’t know if they don’t understand or don’t want to understand, but linking the transportation bill to the Medicaid expansion they’re all saying the governor and the House caved on Medicaid expansion, and it couldn’t be further from the truth,” Howell said. “I can’t see one vote that they’ll get out of the five people we put on the House side.”
The transportation bill is likely to remain an issue in this year’s elections, both for nominations and in the general election.
Stimpson cast it as a defining moment for Republicans.
“I have talked to Republicans today who are absolutely disgusted with our party,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “They are sick and tired of being sold out. The Republican Party itself is at stake in Virginia, and if we don’t act and restore our party to that of lower taxes and smaller government, we risk losing faithful Republicans and independent voters.”
Some have also suggested that Republicans who voted for the transportation bill should get primary challenges from the right. Del. Joe May of Loudoun, who supported the bill, is currently the only Republican delegate facing a primary challenge.
Howell said he’ll help incumbent Republicans defend themselves against primary challenges, whether they voted for the bill or not.
That’s assuming he doesn’t have to fight off a primary challenge himself. But that doesn’t look likely at the moment.
Stafford County Republican chairman Heather Stefl said that among local Republicans in Howell’s home county, there are “a lot of people who feel strongly on both sides” of the transportation and tax-increase issues.
But so far, she said, that hasn’t translated into an effort to unseat Howell.
“I don’t see, nor have I heard of any feeling of challenging any of our sitting delegates right now,” Stefl said. “I think people are just trying to absorb all the facts and all the details right now.”
Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028