September 27, 2006 12:50 am SOMEWHERE along the road to power in Richmond, Stafford County's Bill Howell developed a vision. I'm not talking about a cosmic plan for Virginia's version of nirvana. But I do mean something more than "running the trains on time."
To the applause of some and the groans of others, Howell has introduced an array of legislative proposals aimed at greasing the wheels of governmental bureaucracy with free-enterprise innovations.
What's remarkable is that quite a few folks, undoubtedly including some of those who plucked Howell out the GOP House ranks to become speaker in 2002, weren't expecting a vision from Howell. Maybe he wasn't, either.
The House leader playfully refers to his "road to Damascus" moment, when he realized that encouraging delegates to be nice to one another just wasn't enough for a leader of the House--not for a speaker with the potential to outlast quite a few one-term governors.
During the countdown to the special General Assembly session on transportation, which begins today, the elements of Howell's vision have come into view. Though critics already are lambasting what they see as Howell's faulty premises, it's clear that his ideas are more than just saying "no" to tax hikes.
The speaker's enthusiasm for innovation was on full display last week during a Free Lance-Star editorial-board chat on transportation. By the time Howell had finished holding forth on outsourcing, toll-calculating technology, public-private partnerships and VDOT accountability, he had referenced innovative examples from Texas to Australia to Sweden.
The general idea is that Virginia needs creativity to solve its transportation woes--not more taxes. It also needs to nudge local governments on land-use planning and financial accountability.
Through reform initiatives and task forces, Howell is trying to lift the House GOP above the one-note negativity to tax hikes that has become its trademark caricature. He wants the GOP delegates to be known for more than the motto: Shoot first and ask questions later if you see anything resembling a tax hike.
Howell makes a good ambassador for this effort. Self-deprecating, funny and competitive, he somehow manages to come across as intense and relaxed at the same time--an introvert who can keep the conversation going.
In the world of Howell, the easy though inefficient fix for transportation would be to raise taxes. The harder but better approach would be a combination of more spending, efficiency, innovation and accountability--without tax hikes.
Leading the legislative resistance to the House approach is Howell's longtime GOP pal from Stafford, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Chichester, who now lives in Northumberland County.
The senator argues that a sustainable revenue flow sufficient for solving transportation problems will require tax hikes. He also objects to Howell's proposal to "fix" transportation by tapping the general fund, which supports schools and a slew of other services.
Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine pretty much agrees with Chichester.
So will these two old Stafford friends find a way to bridge the gap on transportation--to cobble together a "Mideast peace agreement" that allows principled opponents to forge a compromise?
Don't count on it--at least not yet.
Howell says he and Chichester remain friends, talk with some frequency on legislative matters, but, in essence, have nothing more to say to each other on transportation issues.
That's a shame, because these two Staffordians may hold the best hope for a sensible compromise that could begin to unclog the overburdened highways of Virginia.
ED JONES is editor of The Free Lance-Star. He can be reached at 540/374-5401 or at edjones@ freelancestar.com.