About Our Guest
R. Edward “Edd” Houck was born in Smyth County, Virginia. He attended public schools in Smyth County and received his Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Education from Concord College and his M. Ed. from the University of Virginia.
As the son of a small businessman, Edd Houck was raised to appreciate the values of hard work and diligence. Edd began his teaching career in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, as a middle-school science teacher.
He has also been a guidance counselor, assistant principal, and the Director of Student Services for Fredericksburg City Public Schools. In 2007, Edd announced his retirement from the school system after 34 years of service as a public school educator.
He is currently the Director of Corporate and Community Programs for MediCorp in Fredericksburg.
Edd and his wife Dana live in Spotsylvania and have two children and two grandchildren. Dana is a physical education teacher at Courtland Elementary School in Spotsylvania.
Senator Houck currently serves on the Finance, Education and Health, Transportation, Rules, and the General Laws and Technology committees. Senator Houck has been recognized for his efforts and has received numerous awards.
Jan Paynter: Hello. I’m Jan Paynter and I would like to welcome you again to our program Politics Matters. Our guest today is Virginia Senator Edd Houck, Democrat from the 17th District of Spotsylvania County. R. Edward Houck was born in Smyth County, Virginia. He received his Bachelors of Science degree in Education from Concord College and his Masters of Education from the University of Virginia. He began his teaching career in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, as a middle school science teacher.
He has also been a guidance counselor, assistant principal and Director of Student Services for Fredericksburg City Public Schools. Having retired after 34 years of service as a public school educator, he is now Director of Corporate and Community Programs for Medicorp in Fredericksburg. Senator Houck was elected to the Virginia State Senate in 1983 and currently serves on the finance, education, health, transportation rules and general laws and technology committees. He also serves as Chairman of the Senate Education and Health committee and the Senate Finance Committee’s Health and Human Resources subcommittee. Senator Houck and his wife Dana have two adult children and live in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Welcome, Senator Houck.
Edd Houck: It’s a pleasure to be with you, Jan.
Jan Paynter: Before we discuss your reasons for running for reelection, Senator, your legislative priorities and sponsored bills as well as your views on some of the broader challenges and issues facing Virginia to date, tell us if you would since this program is about why politics matters, what brought you to politics after a long career in education, what developed your commitment to public service?
Edd Houck: Well, it was actually my career in education that prompted me to seek elected office. My wife Dana and I even in undergraduate school where we were married, we were very active in the political arena. But once we finished undergraduate school and moved to Spotsylvania, we decided we want to become involved in the local Democratic committee. But as an educator it became apparent to me in the early years of my teaching career that it was really politicians who were having the direct impact on my love, my career, my chosen career and that was teaching and blending the interest I had in politics with seeing the impact that policymakers were having on my beloved profession, I decided to run for public office in 1983 and as it ended up it was successful even though I was the decided underdog in that first election.
Jan Paynter: In the month of June, state and local papers make note of the fact that Virginia lost 14,000 jobs at the same time Virginia ended as you well know its fiscal year with a modest surplus with better than anticipated agency revenue and tax savings. The progress notes that most of the monies were already allocated in the form of a rainy day fund, water quality and transportation. What, Senator, is the federal action contingency trust?
Edd Houck: Well, this was an announcement by Governor McDonnell just recently when we ended the second fiscal year in the black and being on the Senate Finance Committee and one of the budget conferees, I’m intricately involved with the state finances and the budget process. This proposal by the Governor, of which I think is a sound idea, is to take at least a portion of this surplus that we’ve ended the fiscal year with and put it in a fund so that we would not allocate it at least immediately, ‘til we see what the impact is going to occur in Washington with federal actions with budget balancing and all the difficulty that Congress seems to be having with dealing with the nation’s finances. So this is really just a fund, a holding place if you will to see what effect the Washington actions will have on Virginia. Virginia’s highly dependent upon the federal government for contracting, military and etc. so if there’s major reductions in the United States budget by Congress, that will have an effect on Virginia. So this fund that the Governor has announced is really just a holding place until we see what those federal actions will be.
Jan Paynter: Well, you were quoted as saying you felt it was a wise decision so I’m guessing that that’s still pertains here.
Edd Houck: Oh, yes, I think so.
Jan Paynter: What are some of your ideas for needed job creation, Senator?
Edd Houck: Well, in Virginia, even during this difficult economic times that we’ve been in going back to Governor Kaine as he was leaving office, we were dealing with tremendous budget reductions. Now under Governor McDonnell at least we’ve seen a slight and it is a slight uptick in state revenues. The key area that we can do jobs is through the Governor’s economic development fund. In these difficult budget times we’ve had, we’ve still earmarked money for the executive branch to undertake economic development to try to entice new businesses, new jobs, new corporations, particularly clean energy and high tech jobs to Virginia. So from our standpoint I think it’s providing economic opportunity, keeping state spending which is definitely in line here in Virginia and holding the line on any kind of tax increases while we get through this recession.
Jan Paynter: I noticed—noted that some of the teacher pension funds have been restored to some degree which must be something that you’re happy about.
Edd Houck: Well, we were really faced with a Hobson’s choice when we took the $600 million out of the retirement system. We had already cut the state budget some five billion dollars and we were still in a deficit situation. So rather than layoff more state employees or college faculty or even public school teachers, the difficult but I think necessary choice was to take $600—just not pay the state’s share of $600 million and we did that for a savings to the state but with the understanding we would have to start paying it back in because after all it is the retirement system for our employees, both local and state. So we’re well underway of repaying what we didn’t do in 2010.
Jan Paynter: Discuss if you would the Higher Education Opportunity Act and what it will mean for schools in the state.
Edd Houck: This was an initiative of Governor McDonnell’s that the intent, the goal is to create more college educated citizens in Virginia by the year 2025. The Governor asked me to sponsor the legislation, introduce the legislation. I serve on his Higher Education Advisory Council and all this grows out of the Business Higher Education Advocacy groups that recognize that in order for the economy in Virginia to flourish and to continue to flourish you’ve got to have an educated workforce. So this act really set up a mechanism and funding, I submitted a budget amendment on behalf of the Governor, to fund higher education more fully in Virginia. It’s been cut during this recession dramatically, too much but it happened. So this infusion of money and this whole programming is really trying to focus on math—the stem areas—math, science and engineering and to have a higher educated workforce here in Virginia. I was proud to sponsor the legislation. It passed and of course the funding was desperately needed by our institutions of higher education here in Virginia including my favorite, the University of Virginia.
Jan Paynter: What other—in that connection, what other educational initiatives are you involved in presently and what are your ideas about educational improvements such as K through 12 and improving per pupil funding?
Edd Houck: Right. Well, so much of it gets back to funding and during this recession unfortunately for the first time in modern history we actually cut the funding to our public education system to the tune of about one billion dollars and that was very painful for me because again that was my passion, that’s my emphasis for being in the legislature and all that we do. One of the key areas that I’ve focused on at least the last few years which I think does not get near enough attention is preschool education. Young children who do not have access to good quality preschool, they have a difficult time once they enter kindergarten and many of those same students begin to fall behind academically as they begin to advance through school to the point that we have to spend millions of dollars for remediation, trying to catch kids up with the SOLs and the standardized testing and etc. So I’ve really worked as a member of the Early Childhood Education Foundation and in the legislature to have additional funding for pre-K education. I think it’s absolutely essential to ensuring we have a good quality pre-K program here in Virginia.
Jan Paynter: Uh huh. It starts them out well and that’s important I know. What can we do together as Virginians to improve access to healthcare for all Virginians economically challenged at this time?
Edd Houck: Well, it’s a huge topic. Once again, I chair the Education and Health Committee in the State Senate. I’m also the Chair of the Health and Human Resources subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee and that subcommittee is responsible for funding all the state initiatives that have any type of healthcare area one of which is Medicaid. And Medicaid is that safety net program for the frail elderly, for the disabled and for the blind and what we’ve been able to do the last few years is so important to individuals that have disabilities whether it’s intellectual or developmental disabilities or whatever the case is to create more community based waivers so that individuals do not have to be institutionalized. They can still live in communities, they can live in conjugate care or group homes and have a much more normal life, those who are capable of doing it. So we’ve made advances in that area but that will continue to be a challenge to make sure we have community based care for those disabled Virginians who can live in neighborhoods and enjoy a normal life.
Jan Paynter: Given the persistence of the weak economy nationwide with weak consumer spending, the recent 15 percent drop in stock prices, we all know about the European debt crisis which affects us strongly, the sustained high unemployment from nine percent in 2011 to probably they’re thinking eight point five percent in 2012 with the flat housing market, what are some proactive and positive legislative steps and initiatives that might be undertaken do you think to carry us forward?
Edd Houck: Well, it’s difficult at the state level. Most of all the things you named have an impact in the nation and obviously the world. This is a worldwide recession that we’re in so how do you take policy decisions at the state level and have some counterbalance to all that adversity. It’s very difficult, very difficult indeed. I think the main thing we do in Virginia is to sort of stay the course that we have been and that be a very well managed fiscally state, we’ve been recognized as being the best managed state in the nation numerous times by independent sources. We’ve also been recognized as the best state to do business in which I think is important. We were recognized as the state for a child to have the best opportunity to succeed. So with this recession being global and national in nature, it’s very difficult for the state to come up with programs or initiatives to balance that. I think, my personal opinion is we need to maintain our good fiscal integrity, keep Virginia on good sound financial grounds and let the worldwide international economy sort of shake itself out and not make any drastic steps right now in Virginia.
Jan Paynter: What new forms of energy development and energy con—energy—excuse me–conservation do you foresee for our state?
Edd Houck: I think the field is wide open. We’re seeing much more interest now at the state level on green jobs, new energies from wind, solar. I represent Louisa County, the home of North Anna Nuclear Power Plant. I think there’s still a need for expanded nuclear power. It’s not that we don’t have to have precautions and safety, we certainly do, but I think the whole area of energy development—I think it should be wide open. I think we should look anywhere and everywhere we can so that—and again, it’s more of a national issue than it is a state issue but nevertheless I think there’s things we’ve done here in Virginia to help promote and incentivize some of these new energy sources, in particular the jobs that come from them at a time when we need more jobs and more energy.
Jan Paynter: You are well known for your efforts at nonpartisanship. Your voting record clearly reflects strong motivation to vote occasionally with the other side to achieve your goals. Do you envision your party being more willing to do the same going forward?
Edd Houck: Well, at the state level yes. I can’t speak to what’s happening on the national scene. There it seems to be so polarized that it’s almost embarrassing. But at the state level, I think the best example is the last 18 months of Governor McDonnell’s administration. I’ve mentioned a couple of times he’s appointed me to some of his key initiatives in higher education and in healthcare. I’ve reciprocated and been a part of that. I supported the Governor’s transportation initiative. We have had many, many fights at the State Capitol over transportation and transportation funding and we end up at a stalemate with nothing happening. The Governor asked me to fly with him to New York along with other legislators where we met with the three bond rating agencies and we floated this idea that came forth during the 2011 session about jump starting our transportation initiatives with bond financing. The—all three of the agencies went back to our proud history and how well we manage and they said, ‘Do it’. So I was one of the early proponents of the Governor’s transportation program and I think that’s a good thing. Transportation or there’s needs everywhere, just the—then the other side, jobs and contractors having work and workers going back to work, that’s good for Virginia’s economy so I don’t get real hung up about is it a Republican idea, Democratic idea. If it’s good for Virginia, then you’re going to find me in there supporting it and if I don’t think it is, then I won’t support it. But I’m not real—I don’t wear the brand so deep that I’m not willing to look at good things for Virginia wherever it may come from.
Jan Paynter: It seems that people are hungry for results so. In the Charlottesville area we’re all in the process of debating solutions for road congestion, speaking of transportation, and transit improvements. Certain areas of Charlottesville, the precincts are new to you but you do you have some ideas that you think might work in terms of some solutions for the congestion that we’re all experiencing?
Edd Houck: Well, transportation is just like most of the other functions of government. It all gets down to money. You can’t have bypasses, you can’t have additional laneage, you can’t have good airports or even our port system without spending money on it. We’re the 12th largest state in the nation and Virginia, once we get through this recession, we’ll continue to grow. Virginia’s in a critical geographic area on the east coast and so we need a good. sound, well thought out, well managed transportation program in Virginia. It’s sort of a little bit disheartening though to—as I said, I supported the Governor’s transportation initiative and actually tried to get some projects going and the 29 Bypass becoming so controversial with the citizens here in this area you would like to think that would not happen but obviously in this case it has. So it seems to me Charlottesville and Albemarle is going to continue to grow and flourish and if it does, it’s going to have to have a well planned, well thought out and well financed transportation program to go with it.
Jan Paynter: Tell us if you would, Senator, about some legislation in the important area of mental health challenges.
Edd Houck: I sponsored legislation some years ago that was tagged “the mental health parody law” and basically what—and it was enacted by the general assembly after a very contentious fight for over two years. But what mental health parody law said was that insurance companies could not treat behavioral health or mental health diagnosis any different than physical health, that a disease or a problem—medical problem with the brain was no different than the stomach or the heart and while that seems rather simple, it was not the case at all in Virginia because mental illness had been stigmatized in many, many different ways in society but fundamentally the mental health parody law, which passed, basically says you treat diseases, problems with the brain the same as any other organ and it really helps a lot of mentally ill families and individuals because their insurance companies cannot deny them coverage for those type of diagnosis.
Jan Paynter: This is very encouraging to hear that. If reelected, what are some of your specific priorities for the Virginia budget?
Edd Houck: Well, we’re going to still continue to weather this storm. I mean, I have aspirations that we restore more money for education, both higher education and public education. It’s needed. I mentioned early pre-K education. I think that’s important. We’ve lost ground in our public safety areas. Our brave deputy sheriffs, police officers and others who go out there, they’ve been hammered pretty hard during this recession. So on a short term I’d say we’re still going to weather this storm and not only this recession but this other dysfunction that’s occurring in Washington, that will have a direct impact on Virginia so in the near term I think we’re still going to be doing some damage control, hopefully being able to restore some modest levels of funding, particularly in education. But I think it’s way too early to start having big, big dreams because the dollars simply will not be there, not yet.
Jan Paynter: In that connection, what have been some of the toughest budgetary decisions that you’ve had to make, Senator?
Edd Houck: Well, it’s almost across the board. The cutting of that public education funding was horrific and it was bad for higher education but at least in higher ed they could raise tuition which they have which at least maintains the programming. Probably the most painful single cut was the closure of a adolescent psychiatric unit back in my hometown in Southwest Virginia. And not only the geographic part of it but the fact when you think about a vulnerable population, adolescents with psychiatric diagnosis who’ve actually been institutionalized and to have to close that unit, that was terribly painful to me. But I think it was a good example of how Virginia—we do different than they do in Washington. Again, all these cuts were definitely against my value system but in reality we have a balanced state budget. In our constitution, if you’re going to balance it, you have to make the tough choices and we’ve done them. But that was probably the most single painful exercise. It was in my subcommittee too so to have to chair that and lead that was a very painful proposition.
Jan Paynter: What are some of the pieces of legislation of which you are most proud?
Edd Houck: Well, the mental health parody bill because it was so difficult to get passed. That one was helpful. The sex offender registry in Virginia, where you know now by law if you commit a violent sexual crime, those perpetrators’ names go on a registry. I sponsored that legislation. Children are victimized so much, so often in so many ways that that sex offender registry law really has helped protect a lot of children here in Virginia. There’s been so many others over the years. Those are the two that really stand out paramount. I had a bill that requires criminal background checks for all daycare workers. And again, in order to protect children, those type steps are necessary so I was very pleased to get that passed also.
Jan Paynter: What did the stimulus in your view achieve and what did it fail to achieve?
Edd Houck: Well, it was really—it really helped—it again was damage control. Here we are making massive cuts and at least in the years that the stimulus money there—again I’ll go back to education. With higher education, public education and even in Medicaid for the frail elderly in our nursing homes, that stimulus money actually helped cushion the blow. We did not have to cut as drastic as would have been required without the stimulus. It saved a lot of jobs in that there were not more teachers laid off, there were not more healthcare nursing assistants taken out of nursing homes so it really helped protect jobs in Virginia and provide that needed service which the citizens deserve, want and need quite frankly.
Jan Paynter: How can Virginia increase care for citizens with disabilities?
Edd Houck: Well, we don’t have a great record in that regard when you compare us to other states. I keep going back to Medicaid which is truly the safety net program, federal/state shared funding mechanism. We rank 47th out of the 50 states as to what we put in Medicaid and again, frail elderly in nursing homes, the disabled and the blind. These are very vulnerable populations. One of the things we need to do is to continue to have the state pay its portion and to actually elevate money for Medicaid. It’s a matching dollar for dollar proposition. For each dollar we put in, we get a dollar from the federal government so it really provides a lot of needed services. So one of the things we need to do is continue Medicaid funding. In terms of the institutionalization of folks, particularly with developmental disabilities, we need to get—we need to get more of those individuals out into the community where they can live very productive lives and not be institutionalized for their entire life.
Jan Paynter: Finally, share with us if you would an issue that you feel strongly about that doesn’t generally get much air time and much attention.
Edd Houck: Well, I will—the one that’s become a real passion for me over the years is protection of the public’s right to know by way of having governmental meetings open to the public, having governmental records open to the public and in a free society having citizens that enjoy the right of really knowing what’s going on in their government and being able to be informed about that. I chair the Freedom of Information Advisory Council of which I was a part of the creation of that a number of years ago and it’s very rewarding although it doesn’t get a single bit of publicity at all and most folks don’t even know that there is a FOIA Act in the Virginia code but it really is a fundamental part of a free society that I’ve sort of discovered once I got in the legislature. But I’ve spent a lot of time and energy just working on the public’s right to know.
Jan Paynter: Thank you very much, Senator Houck for being our guest today on Politics Matters and taking time out of your very busy schedule.
Edd Houck: Thank you for inviting me. It’s been a pleasure.
Jan Paynter: Recent events in the Middle East, most recently in Syria and Libya, serve to remind us that freedom and free speech and expression is often hard won. We have all seen the pictures of people coming forward to make their voices heard, often at tremendous personal cost of life and limb. Many have died for this precious gift of late. We here in the United States indeed did that once at the dawn of our republic in order to construct a fully functioning democracy. We have the freedom of opportunity to make our voices peaceably heard this November, by going to the polls to vote for our state’s representatives. Politics matters because we and our nation matter. Take a moment next month and participate. If you don’t play, you cannot win. I want to thank Senator Houck again for joining in our discussion today. We thank you at home for listening and for your participation. We are always interested in hearing from you with any comments, concerns, topics for future programs. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s also a complete archive of all prior Politics Matters programs online which you may watch in their entirety at any time. We air Tuesday and Saturday at 8:00 pm and weekly afternoons at 3:00 pm. Thank you again and until next time I’m Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters.