Virginia House of Delegates Speaker, William Howell, came to the University of Mary Washington campus to speak about the legislative session held in the House this year.
Howell spoke on Thursday, April 19 to both to Professor Singh’s introduction to international affairs class and with anyone who wanted to hear him speak.
“It was a tough budget year—it caused us not to get a budget until yesterday,” said Howell.
This year the House of Delegates passed the “caboose budget,” which carries into December 2012, according to Howell.
Howell stated that about 90 percent of the bills passed are fairly non-controversial—many are just “house-keeping” bills.
The most important bill passed is one that dealt with the state-retirement plan, according to Howell.
“We passed legislation that modified the way our retirement plans work,” said Howell.
The bill reduces the amount of unfunded liability and will have an impact on Virginia’s fiscal stability, according to Howell.
“We changed the benefits to create a hybrid,” said Howell.
Howell also spoke about the legislation that increases the spending in higher education.
“We are very concerned about the future of the schools in Virginia,” said Howell.
After Howell finished speaking he opened the room for questioning.
The topic of abortion soon came up and created some debate.
When asked about a stand-your-ground law in Virginia, Howell said he did not support it because common law provides that if one feels threatened, then they are justified in using deadly force, especially if inside one’s own house.
When asked if he would support increasing salary for employees at state institutions, Howell said, “I don’t think minimum wages are smart. I think when you set an artificial hourly wage, the people who can least afford to lose their job lose their job.”
The discussion became more heated when questions about the recent legislation concerning abortion and birth control arose.
“It’s not what a woman does with her body, it’s what happens to an unborn child,” said Howell when asked why he cares about abortion.
Freshman Isabelle Malouf and Howell engaged in a debate concerning what percentage of abortions were performed before eight weeks.
When asked by Malouf where he was getting his facts, Howell said, “I’m making them up, as I suggest you are too.”
Howell encouraged adoption and said he was doing a lot to help families in Virginia. He cited Medicaid funding and a new “conscious clause” to adoption law that, according to Howell, allows private adoption agencies to discriminate on religious or moral grounds.
Howell was asked about the relationship between capital punishment and abortion, and said that he voted for keeping capital punishment and sees the two as completely separate issues.
“I suppose we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this,” said Howell. “Anyone got a serious question?”
Questions then shifted to the proposed metro silver line, which Howell called, “a case of crony capitalism, just an opportunity for a select group of people to make a lot of money.”
However, Howell recognized that transportation is a big problem in Virginia and that something needs to be done to increase funding. According to Howell, the gasoline tax is not as effective as it used to be since cars are manufactured with increasingly high MPG.
Another student later asked about the growing homeless population in Fredericksburg.
“We’ve put a couple million dollars in increased funding there,” said Howell. “It’s more a local issue than a state issue, but what’s being done is providing shelters and rent subsidies.”
According to Howell, the increase in the homelessness population was due to the increased cost of living, and believes counseling at shelters was important.
After the discussion, a group of about 10 students approached Howell to apologize for their peers’ actions.
Freshman Business and Economics major Allyson Schettino was the first student to apologize, stating that she is pro-choice but thinks students should have been more respectful.
Freshman Nina Bowan was among the group and said, “I think we should be more respectful. He’s a highly respected member that of government” and added that she thinks he should have handled the conflict better, but that overall he handled it “fairly decently.”
“I don’t think he wanted to talk or think about it, or accept that there are other valid viewpoints,” said Malouf. “I felt he was rude.”
Charlotte Sandy, a junior psychology major, also attended Howell’s speech.
“I was a little disappointed with some of the fellow audience members—it’s fine to disagree but I don’t think it was the time or the place,” said Sandy.
Howell said after the discussion, “I was a little out of my element. I obviously wasn’t in a room of staunch republicans.”
Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science and international affairs and director of the center for leadership and media studies, offered his own viewpoint on the discussion.
“I respect local officials and their ability to speak honestly.” Farnsworth said. “It’s an important part of education for students to interact with a local politician, who has a lot of influence. He’ll say what he believes, agree or disagree.”
Howell was first elected a delegate in 1987 and became Speaker in 2003. He represents Fredericksburg and Stafford.
He is also an attorney 10 months out of the year and he spends the other two months in Richmond as Speaker.