By Chris Bradshaw
Republican Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Bill Howell visited George Mason University Tuesday to address students and faculty. He answered questions about the current budget crisis and the impact it will have on the state level.
“Technically we’re not in a recession – in this country or in Virginia – yet, but I really think one is coming, and I think we need to prepare for that,” Howell said. He predicted that Virginia would face a deficit as high as $3.5 to four billion over the next two years.
Howell recommended using the current financial strain as an opportunity to re-examine the way Virginia puts together its budget.
“This speaks loudly to reforming the way we do our budget,” Howell said. “We shouldn’t have to go through these exercises every time we have an economic cycle. We ought to be able to build a budget that does well in good times and that can exist in the less-good times. I’m hoping we can use this opportunity to make those structural changes.”
To make these changes, Howell called on unity between political parties and government branches.
“Whether we can get this done between now and January remains to be seen,” he said. “It’s going to take support of the governor, it’s going to take support of the Senate, as well as the House.”
Howell suggested both parties must be willing to compromise. As examples, he cited a pay raise cap for teachers, a position that Democrats previously balked at, and the possibility of reducing the number of
prison inmates, which is traditionally opposed by Republicans.
“Maybe this is an area where we can work together,” Howell said. “Governor Tim Kaine is already looking into ways to reduce budget costs.”
Howell said that Kaine has asked all government agencies to give him a projection of how they would cut their spending by five to 15 percent over the next three years.
“They’re not – and this is to his credit – they’re not proposing we go across the board and cut everybody seven-and-a-half percent,” Howell said. “For example, he said we can’t cut what we give to local governments for education K-12 in this fiscal year because they’ve already developed contracts and they’re already spending money based on what we told them we would give them.”
Howell was quick to point out that although Kaine refused to cut funds for K-12 education this fiscal year, cuts for next year should be expected.
“I don’t think our education is going to be exempt,” Howell said. “I think everyone’s going to feel [it].”
Educational policy was at the forefront of the minds of Mason students and faculty members who asked questions once Howell opened the floor. One of the first questions Howell was asked concerned how these budget cuts would affect Mason.
“I can’t tell you how the cuts are going to impact this university because I don’t know if anybody’s announced what they’re going to be for George Mason and how they’ll compare to other universities,” Howell said. “Some may get a deeper cut than others, because some, perhaps, can handle it. But I do think it’s safe to say that, more than likely, your tuition is going to go up, even more than it might have otherwise.”
Without downplaying the seriousness of the situation, Howell also expressed optimism about Virginia’s ability to endure and overcome the current crisis, citing Forbes.com’s recognition of Virginia as the best-managed state and best state to do business in for the past three years.
“We’re in mighty good shape compared to other states,” Howell said.