RICHMOND, VA – The Virginia House of Delegates convened at Noon Wednesday for the 2016 legislative session. 2016 marks the 397th year of operation for the House of Delegates, the oldest continuously-elected legislative body in the Western Hemisphere. Delegate William J. Howell (R-Stafford) was unanimously elected to his eighth term as Speaker.
Upon his election, Howell addressed the House of Delegates. His full remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below. Howell’s remarks will be printed in the Journal of the House of Delegates.
It is truly an honor to stand before you today. I am humbled by the trust placed in me to lead this distinguished body again. Words cannot express how grateful I am for your support and prayers.
The office of Speaker is a constitutional office that comes with significant responsibilities and obligations, not to one party, but to every member of the House and the people of Virginia. I do not take these duties lightly. I will continue to serve with the discretion, judiciousness, honor and integrity that the people of the Commonwealth demand.
There are 11 new members with us today. I welcome each of you, and your families, to Mr. Jefferson’s capitol and the House of Delegates. We are excited to have you join us.
It is a distinct honor to serve in this body. I need not remind you that gentlemen named Madison, Jefferson and Henry walked these halls. They are a constant reminder of the tremendous responsibility we bear as leaders of the Commonwealth. None of us are entitled to the seats we hold, and we can never forget why we are here – to serve our fellow citizens.
As we begin this session, it is important to reflect on the success of recent years. We have seen what happens when we set our ideological divisions aside and work together. Last year, thanks to the hard work of so many in this chamber, we adjourned early for the first time in 15 years. We passed legislation to make college more affordable, keep students safe on campus and provide our veterans with better healthcare access.
In the 2016 session, we must continue to build on this record of success. Virginia faces no shortage of challenges.
Our biggest priority this year is crafting a new state budget. Last year, not only did we adopt a responsible budget, but we did so ahead of schedule. Our conservative budgeting led to the largest single year revenue surplus in the history of the Commonwealth.
Our responsibility this year is to replicate that success. We must continue to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. While Washington drowns in deficits and debt, we have a constitutional obligation to balance our budget. We must meet the needs of our Commonwealth without saddling our children and grandchildren with the bill.
Just as important as the budget is the manner in which we write it. We have a duty to conduct the people’s business openly and transparently. Chairman Jones, the Appropriations Committee and their work has always been open and accessible. This year, we are strengthening our commitment to transparency by adopting in our rules a 48 hour review period before voting on the final conference report. This change will ensure that both legislators and the public have an opportunity to be fully apprised of the budget before this body takes action.
Additionally, in an effort to maintain and build on this body’s commitment to transparency, we will no longer hold committee meetings at member’s desks in the chamber. While I know this is an inconvenience to members, it is an important signal to the public that we are committed to openness.
In addition to the budget, a number of other pressing issues require our attention. We must remain focused on offering real solutions for our fellow citizens.
Virginia’s economy, while improving, is not out of the woods. While unemployment numbers may have rebounded, Virginians continue to feel squeezed. We must redouble our efforts to encourage entrepreneurs and innovation, promote a positive business climate that attracts companies from around the world, and strengthen our workforce for the 21st century.
Education is also vital to the Commonwealth’s long-term economic success. Our goal is to provide every student with the opportunity to succeed. That means investing in a strong public education system. It also means providing choice and flexibility for parents and students.
This year, we have the opportunity to pass a major amendment to our constitution that will expand educational opportunities. President Obama said that charter schools “are gateways to higher education and endless possibilities, lifting up students of all backgrounds and empowering them to achieve a brighter future.” I think Republicans and Democrats can find common ground on charter schools in Virginia.
I would be remiss if I did not mention healthcare. This chamber has collectively expressed its will on Medicaid expansion no fewer than five times in the last two years.
Our goal should be improving access and keeping costs low. There are a number of proposals on Virginia’s longstanding certificate of public need laws. Those proposals deserve full and due consideration this year. It is also imperative that we continue to strengthen our mental and behavioral health system, and continue to invest in the health care safety net.
We are not always going to agree. We will exchange lengthy dialogue between each other over our ideas on how to move Virginia forward. I encourage us all to do so in a civil and respectful way. That is what our constituents expect and demand.
I will conclude by again thanking each of you for your service and dedication to the Commonwealth. We have a long road ahead, but I am confident that we will find success.