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Howell Creates Think Tank to Foster His Agenda

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2004; Page VA04

House Speaker William J. Howell's agenda needs a boost.

The Stafford Republican's vision for conservative, free-market reforms has made little headway since he rose to power in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2003. This year, his attempts to hold back tax increases were swept aside by a powerful and well-financed coalition of politicians, lobbyists and interest groups.

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Now, Howell is fighting to take control of the political discussion by forming his own think tank devoted to enshrining in state law the conservative principles that he espouses.

It is called the Virginia Reform Initiative. It's a tax-exempt organization with offices in Richmond and an executive director who started Sept. 1. Howell is the chairman of a small board of directors, which includes Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), a close confidant, and G. Paul Nardo, Howell's chief aide.

"The problems have become so complex," Howell said in a recent interview. "We can't continue to address those problems in the 21st century like we did in the 20th century. We've got to have more innovative solutions."

Howell said the group will serve as an incubator for ideas on topics as diverse as tort reform, education funding, health care, tax credits, charter schools and teacher accountability. He has already asked Cox, who will run the operation day-to-day, and its director, Chris Doss, to start thinking seriously about solutions to Virginia's transportation funding crisis.

In a letter to Republican House members, Howell said the organization's mission will be to "analyze, develop, support, implement and institutionalize free-market based approaches for fiscally responsible government reforms."

It's no surprise that Howell is looking for help in making that agenda a reality. His political adversaries in Richmond have a big head start.

Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) was able -- as any governor would -- to draw upon a vast bureaucracy in waging a battle to raise taxes this year. At his disposal were Cabinet secretaries, a budget department, a tax office, a public relations staff and more.

In the Senate, an alliance of Democrats and moderate Republicans controls the powerful Finance Committee and its staff. This summer, the chamber's five leading Republicans announced the creation of their political action committee to raise money and to campaign for their agenda.

Howell, meanwhile, presides over a group of part-time Republican lawmakers who are fractured ideologically. During the last session, many Republicans privately complained that Howell and the other House leaders were grasping at one ill-thought-out idea after another as they struggled to win the tax battle.

A big opponent of a professional legislature, Howell nonetheless recognizes that follow-through can be difficult when lawmakers return home to be lawyers, pharmacists and real estate agents for 10 months of the year.

"The continuity of having some organization that's working on these things more continually is going to be helpful," he said in describing the need for his group.

But how helpful will depend on whether the organization becomes a credible voice in the legislative debate or another mouthpiece for the House leadership.

This summer, Howell sponsored an "ideas retreat" for all Republican House members. Its stated goal was to foster the kind of innovative ideas Howell says will be the forte of his new think tank. But its real mission was to begin the process of closing the chasm between anti-tax conservatives and the moderate Republicans who voted for Warner's tax increase.

Some of those moderate Republicans attended and said the healing process had begun.

But those same moderate legislators might see the new think tank as an adversary within their ranks if they are not included in setting its direction. Cox was among the most hard-line House members when it came to taxes, and Howell has not offered any indication that the pro-tax Republicans will play a significant role in shaping the think tank's ideas.

Howell said he never considered approaching Democrats or senators to create a bipartisan or cross-chamber institution. "It's my organization," he said. In the letter to his colleagues, Howell said, "I believe Virginia is at a crossroads."

So, too, is his agenda.


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