For a moment, the Virginia House of Delegates stood with two speakers of the House.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Speaker,” House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, greeted House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.
Jones then turned to former House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, standing with his family in the center aisle of the institution he served for 30 years, including 15 as its undisputed leader.
Howell’s return to the House was emotional for more reasons than his memory. On Jan. 2, a day after he officially retired as a state employee, Howell was stricken by a heart attack and taken into emergency surgery.
“There is life after retirement, though I haven’t found it yet,” he quipped during the House ceremony on Wednesday.
As the year began, the House that Howell had led with a quick wit and firm hand had been transformed by an electoral tsunami that flipped 15 seats to Democratic control and whittled a two-thirds Republican majority to two seats. As he recovered in a Fredericksburg hospital, political control of the House rested on a random drawing of lots from a bowl to determine the winner of a tied election in Newport News.
Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, won the drawing and the House elected Cox as its new speaker, but instead of the firewall that Howell had erected against Medicaid expansion, the Republican leadership adopted a state budget built on it and the billions of dollars in federal money available under the Affordable Care Act.
‘Integrity and character’
Howell was remembered on Wednesday less for his political bearings than his moral example, which Cox called “Bill Howell’s integrity and character.”
“You’re a special, special man,” Cox told Howell, who stood with Cessie, his wife of 51 years, as well as sons Billy and Jack.
Earlier, Howell had appeared on the other side of the Capitol in the Virginia Senate. It also honored the man named as Outstanding Virginian of 2018 by a committee in partnership with the University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy “to recognize leaders who have made an indelible mark on the commonwealth,” according to the resolution adopted by both chambers.
“I tell you, Bill Howell is a man of true integrity and honor, and he’s someone who’s always going to be known for doing what he thinks is right, even if it’s going to be difficult,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, who introduced the former speaker in the “other” chamber.
For Jones, the proof was Howell’s role in reshaping the way Virginia raises money for highways and mass transit, as well as how it sets the priorities for spending it.
In 2013, Howell sponsored legislation on behalf of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell to overhaul transportation funding in Virginia for the first time in almost 30 years.
But the $6 billion package that emerged looked much different than it did when Howell introduced House Bill 2313. “It became clear that much more was needed to be done to solve the challenges for our commonwealth,” said Jones, who led the House effort to pass the legislation.
The law, raising taxes at the state and regional levels, became the legacy achievement of McDonnell’s term, but also made Howell and other supporters political targets in GOP primaries two years later. Howell won his 2015 primary challenge handily and the subsequent general election for his 15th and final term.
Retirement system reform
Howell’s achievements also include playing a major role in pushing for reforms of the Virginia Retirement System to reduce its long-term unfunded liabilities and require the legislature to fund the full state contribution required to keep pension plans for state employees, teachers and local employees on sound actuarial footing.
This year, the pension plans will be fully funded, ahead of the schedule adopted in the reform package that Jones carried for the House and Howell in 2012.
However, the former speaker was denied his long-held dream of establishing a system of 401(k)-style retirement savings plans instead of traditional pensions for new state employees. Legislation he had championed as chairman of a joint commission on employee benefits and pension reforms died in a Senate committee on the last day of the 2017 session.
“Beneath the affable demeanor was one of the most savvy and intelligent leaders Virginia has ever known,” Jones said.
Howell, who announced his retirement at the end of the last session, praised his wife for her steadfast support, “not just in the late unpleasantness, but for 51 years,” and thanked his legislative colleagues.
“The only thing I love more than Virginia, perhaps, is the Virginia House of Delegates,” he said to one last thundering ovation.