Not germane: House speaker kills MLK Day redistricting bill
After recent actions of Republicans in the General Assembly have put that institution in the national spotlight– and on Comedy Central's Colbert Report– it's almost quaint to hear House Speaker William Howell cite "honor, dignity and integrity" in making a decision highly unpopular with his fellow Republicans.
The issue is the notorious Martin Luther King Day redistricting, in which Republicans in the evenly split Senate took advantage of the absence of civil rights leader Senator Henry Marsh, a Democrat, who was attending the inauguration of President Barack Obama, to pass 20-19 an amended bill that dramatically redrew the map of state Senate districts.
The original House of Delegates bill made technical adjustments to boundaries, such as adjusting split precincts. The Senate amendment created a black majority district– and strengthened existing Republican districts while drawing and quartering state Senator Creigh Deeds' 25th District, which includes Charlottesville.
Not even Governor Bob McDonnell knew his party planned such a move at a time he was trying to get a transportation bill passed.
The amended bill, HB 259, came back to the Republican-majority House, and for more than two weeks it was in the hands of Speaker Howell, who on February 6 ruled the amendments not germane to the original bill, creating something of an uproar among eager-to-vote House Republicans, who caucused behind closed doors without Howell.
The amendments offered by the Senate strayed distantly from the original purpose of the legislation, opines Howell in a February 7 Richmond Times Dispatch op-ed. "For these reasons, I ruled the Senate amendments not germane and out of order.
"This is not a decision I made lightly," he writes. "This legislation would have immense political ramifications on the commonwealth."
Howell being a stickler on germaneness is nothing new, according to Delegate Rob Bell. "I believe the speaker made the decision on the technical issue of whether it was germane," Bell says, "and he has done that over his 10-year tenure. He has done that to me on a bill as recently as last year."
And once an amendment is ruled not germane, explains Bell, the whole bill goes down with it.
"I've often disagreed with Bill Howell, but I know he's a man of integrity," says Senator Deeds. "For him to have ruled otherwise wouldn't be like him. I understand he had a battle royale. He stood his ground."
For the past decade or more, Deeds has carried legislation that would reform the current highly partisan redistricting process that occurs every 10 years in Virginia, most recently in 2011. "There's no question that with a nonpartisan redistricting commission, the shenanigans that happened this year absolutely won't be able to take place," he says. "Republicans in the Senate know they're unlikely to hold the Senate in 2015."
Deeds' bill passed the Senate and it went to a House subcommittee, where, as usual, it was tabled on February 11, which means essentially it's dead for this session. "I always hope it will have a different result," wishes Deeds.
Howell's ruling at least appeases Dems and Deeds says it gives McDonnell a better chance of getting a transportation package passed.
"Senate Republicans really poisoned the well," says Deeds. "I think we can get a transportation bill. I'm confident we can get something done."
The reason for Deeds' optimism on transportation, which passed the House last week with McDonnell's proposal to abolish the gas tax while raising the sales tax?
"Republicans don't want to run this fall having not accomplished anything on transportation," offers Deeds. "For Democrats in the Senate, our long-term goal is to get something done. I think it will happen."
House Minority Leader David Toscano told the Times Dispatch Howell's action was “one of the most courageous rulings I’ve ever seen made during my time here.”
Speaker Howell's decision harkens to something not often seen in Richmond– or in Washington: a politician taking a position wildly unpopular in his own party. "...[A]s speaker of the House of Delegates, my responsibilities and obligations are greater than that of any political party," he writes. "I have made a commitment to the citizens of Virginia and history to lead this body with the honor and integrity it deserves."
Correction 2/14: Speaker Howell's locality was incorrectly identified in the original version– it's Stafford.