Elections usually bring some type of change. Sometimes it's big. Sometimes it's subtle. In either case, the change can be substantial or superficial. This past election will bring obvious change to the executive branch of government and conservatives are bracing for the likelihood that it will coincide with — for the most part — a very different policy direction than what Virginia saw the last four years. But there will be subtle changes, too, in the House of Delegates.
Although Republicans kept their supermajority, losing only one net seat for a total of 67 seats, House committees will look very different because of retirements and, in a couple of cases, primary defeats. Specifically affected are the powerful — if not closely followed by the media and general public — positions of committee chairmen.
Speaker Bill Howell, who appoints committee chairmen (and assigns membership to all committees) acknowledged as much today with an unusually early announcement of his appointments:
While it is customary practice to announce committee appointments on the first day of session, I felt it was important to announce my decisions for committee chairs earlier this year due to the extraordinary turnover. We have seven new chairs who need to begin their work immediately. All of these members are important leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates who will be critical to the work we do this year.
The power of the 13 committee chairs is vested in the fact that each is member of the majority's leadership and, more importantly, controls the flow of legislation in his or her committee, not to mention control of the gavel and all the parliamentary power that entails to maneuver bills to approval or defeat once the bill is before the committee. A chairman also has immense sway over committee members. House committees are known for "whipping" their majorities into a voting block on high profile bills to ensure their fate one way of another.
There were seven committee chairmanship vacancies after the election. Below is the list of all 13 chairs (the 14th committee, Rules, is chaired by Speaker Howell) with the new chairmen denoted by an asterisk.
* Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources: Chairman Ed Scott
* Appropriations: Chairman Chris Jones
* Education : Chairman Steve Landes
* Finance: Chairman Lee Ware
* General Laws: Chairman Todd Gilbert
* Science & Technology : Chairwoman Barbara Comstock
* Transportation: Chairman Tom Rust
Commerce & Labor: Chairman Terry Kilgore
Courts of Justice: Chairman Dave Albo
Counties, Cities and Towns: Chairman Riley Ingram
Health, Welfare & Institutions: Chairman Bobby Orrock
Militia, Police & Public Safety: Chairman Scott Lingamfelter
Privileges & Elections: Chairman Mark Cole
At first blush there five new chairmen that stand out. The new chairmen of the Appropriations and Transportation Committees, Chris Jones and Tom Rust, respectively, are considered "moderate" Republicans, who may work well with Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe. Typically, the next in line for the chairmanship of the very powerful Appropriations Committee, which shapes the commonwealth's budget, would have been the very conservative Majority Leader Kirk Cox who is the committee's vice chairman. However, he cannot hold a committee chair while majority leader. Conservative Lacey Putney's retirement created the opening.
Rust, who was next in line in seniority for the high profile Transportation Committee chairmanship, replaces fellow Northern Virginia moderate Joe May, who was defeated in a GOP primary. As transportation remains an ongoing issue in Virginia, despite the so-called "fix" of last year, this committee will most likely see significant bills over the next four years.
On the bright side, moderate Republican Bob Tata's retirement resulted in Steve Landes' elevation to Education Committee chairman. Landes is considerably more conservative and that brings hope of more education reform. Jones' switch to Appropriations left open the General Laws Committee chair, which conservative and 2013 Family Foundation Legislator of the Year Todd Gilbert will fill. A great number of bills, affecting a wide assortment of issues, comes before General Laws, including spending, procurement and transparency reforms.
Finance Committee Chairmen, and moderate Republican Harry Purkey, who voted for the transportation tax increase last year, retired. Speaker Howell's replacement, Lee Ware, voted against it, and accumulated an 89 percent rating on The Family Foundation's 2012-2013 Report Card.
While some of this news seems hopeful in an otherwise dreadful election aftermath, we now wait for Speaker Howell to appoint sub-committee chairmen and committee composition. Then the flood gates will open with thousands of bills filed and delegated to the committees, session will start and the real fun (ugh) will start.