- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

RICHMOND — With a two-year state budget in the breach along with tax increases that could affect a generation, William J. Howell, the habitually polite House speaker, did what doesn’t come naturally for him: He delivered an ultimatum.

Backers of substantial general tax increases, he said Tuesday, either could make part of a new two-year budget contingent on statewide passage of a tax referendum or face a protracted stalemate that could shut down state government this summer.

Within a day, Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, blasted the move as an irresponsible “abdication of leadership,” and even key House Republicans distanced themselves from the plan.

“Sure, you’re going to have people critical of you, and that doesn’t bother me. I’ve been in politics for 17 years now. I’m developing a thicker skin,” Mr. Howell, 60, said as he relaxed on a small sofa in his office just off the House chamber after Friday’s floor session.

Even before the General Assembly began its 60-day session in January, there were skirmishes over Mr. Warner’s $59 billion two-year budget proposal and the additional $1 billion it would generate. For months, it had shaped up as a fierce fight with huge stakes.

Now, with adjournment only days away, five House negotiators who share Mr. Howell’s aversion to tax increases are pushing their $58 billion spending plan as four senators push for a package $3.5 billion richer with an attendant cluster of tax increases. Morphing such disparate proposals into a compromise budget and passing it by Saturday’s scheduled adjournment is clearly daunting; some say highly improbable.

Torn between hard-line fellow Republicans who want no new taxes and the necessity of new revenue for a cash-starved budget, Mr. Howell has had to clash not only with predictable foes — Democrats, including the governor — but also with other Republicans, including his friend and Stafford neighbor, John H. Chichester, the Senate’s chief budget writer. Republican antitax activists criticized the House’s proposal, which Mr. Howell supported, that would have generated hundreds of millions of dollars by repealing sales-tax exemptions on major industries, including shipping, railroads and airlines.

Mr. Howell has defended the House’s position from criticism by business organizations, who have been a key Republican constituency. He has watched as his party’s elder statesman, U.S. Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia and conservative former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., weighed in on behalf of new taxes.

“Politics be damned,” John Warner blustered in praising the governor’s plan last month. The men are not related.

Since then, U.S. Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, and Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican, have denounced the tax plans proposed by the governor and the Senate. They offered the referendum idea on March 1. By Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Howell had adopted it as the House’s position.

“Starting today, the choice in the budget debate becomes very clear: impasse or referendum,” Mr. Howell said during a news conference.

Mr. Howell is a quiet, good-natured man who seeks consensus over conflict, but the increasingly bruising budget dispute makes him the House’s reluctant chief battle commander. He also incurs political consequences, good or ill.

The fatigue and stress show in his face, which smiles less readily than a year ago. The lightning-fast one-liners he has used to dissolve tense times into laughter in the House seem more scarce.

Mr. Howell discounts feeling more pressure this year.

“Nah, that’s just me getting old,” he quipped with a wan smile. “It doesn’t weigh on me personally.”

Delegate Harry J. Parrish, Prince William County Republican, has known Mr. Howell since Mr. Howell arrived as a freshman delegate in 1988. Mr. Parrish senses what he is going through.

“It’s weighing on all of us, particularly with the uncertainty of not getting away on the 13th when we’re scheduled to adjourn, and if we don’t have a budget then, what do we do?” Mr. Parrish said.

“It weighs on the speaker particularly because the speaker, being who he is, doesn’t want to offend anyone. He’s a very religious person, but at the same time his position makes him responsible for upholding the Republican philosophy,” Mr. Parrish said.

Even adversaries who assail Mr. Howell’s positions, voice respect for him.

“He’s a gentleman, he’s conservative, and he’s doing his best to lead, but it’s been very difficult because of the virtual civil war that’s going on within the House Republican Caucus between the no-tax folks and the more moderate, traditional Republicans,” said House Democratic Leader Franklin P. Hall of Richmond.

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