Governor delivers ‘positive’ annual state address

The General Assembly began its work Wednesday with an optimistic State of the Commonwealth speech by Gov. Mark R. Warner and a warm welcome for new House Speaker William J. Howell of Fredericksburg.

Howell was unanimously elected speaker, then seven hours later Warner stood in the same place to address a joint assembly of the House and Senate.

“Over this past year, Virginia has confronted a number of challenges,” he said. “But in every instance, I have seen the strength of Virginians on display time after time. Drawing on Virginia’s strength and resolve, tonight, we will continue to try to realize the vision I spoke of one year ago — of one Virginia with one future.”

Warner looked back at an emotional year marked by sniper attacks in Northern Virginia and the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. It also was a tough economic year, with some good news of jobs saved or created, like 7,000 in the hardest hit southside and southwest Virginia, he said.

“With the backdrop of a gloomy economy, he was very positive, he was very upbeat. He put a positive spin on what would otherwise be a very gloom and doom-type situation,” said Stafford Sen. John H. Chichester, R-28th District, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Much of Warner’s speech covered noncontroversial safe ground, legislators said. Warner said he would veto any budget that reduced funding to public schools or raided the Virginia Retirement System, but House and Senate members said they did not know of any plans to do so.

Standing apart in the speech was $8.9 million in settlements with Wall Street firms, said Prince William Delegate John A. “Jack” Rollison, R-52nd District. Some of that money is proposed to reopen Department of Motor Vehicles offices. “First day, we’re way ahead,” he said.

The House has put controversy behind it. Howell’s speech made no mention of last year’s speaker, S. Vance Wilkins of Amherst, who stepped down amid sexual harassment allegations. In contrast, nominating delegates praised Howell’s integrity and character and thanked his wife Cessie for her support of him.

Perhaps the only controversy left over for the House has been muted because it was last year’s fight: keeping of the salute to the state flag.

Democrats and black caucus members said the salute is insensitive because it has old-fashioned undertones.

Howell was expected to do away with it. But Wednesday he said that was never the case. It is a two-year procedural rule and would be looked at again next year, he said.

“There’s a debate about that, but I think we should keep it. We need to stop running from our history,” said Loudon Delegate Richard H. Black, R-32nd District.

“I wish that it went away,” said Chesapeake Delegate Winsome E. Sears, R-90th District, the lone black House Republican. “Some of us will say it and some of us won’t.”

Staff writer Chris Newman can be reached at (804) 649-8710.

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