It’s time for a two-term governor

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In December 1974, Jimmy Carter announced his candidacy for president of the United States.  He said that, because Georgia did not allow governors to succeed themselves, he had no choice but to seek higher office.  By 1976, Georgia had amended its constitution to allow gubernatorial succession.

Thirty-two years later, Virginia remains the last state in the U.S. that does not permit its governors to serve a second consecutive term.

As the home of the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, Virginia’s historical perspective is always worth considering.  In the early days of our democracy, one-year terms with no succession were common.

Up until the early 1900s, many state governors were seen at best as figureheads elected by their own legislatures.  At worst, they were seen as buffoons, fueling the satire of newspaper editorial cartoons.

Today, the age of citizen-legislators is long behind us.  Henry David Thoreau’s observation “that government is best which governs least” remains true only in relative terms.  Across the U.S., state budgets have multiplied. Being governor means running one of the state’s largest industries.  In a high-tech and globally competitive environment, this is not part-time work.

The state legislature is increasingly populated by long-serving politicians, surrounded by professional staff and career lobbyists.  A one-term governor, with cabinet members and agency heads appointed to single terms, is little match for the General Assembly.

In a four-year term, Virginia’s chief executive presides over the passage of a single two-year budget crafted by his administration. For the first 30 months of their term, the state’s governors operate under a budget designed by their predecessors.  After leaving office, problems of a governor’s own making are left to a successor.  This situation often fails to hold the departing governor accountable for the financial consequences of election-year promises.

Opponents point out that Virginia’s governor has considerable appointment powers over agency heads and other key officials.  However, these positions also tend to rotate every four years.  There is little time for appointed officials to learn their jobs.  High turnover means less efficiency.  Day-to-day leadership defaults to second-level bureaucrats afforded significant, due-process job protections as state employees, regardless of their effectiveness.

The governor’s power is shared with the legislative and judicial branches.  Virginia also balances executive power by independently electing its lieutenant governor and attorney general, often from different political parties than the governor.  The governor’s power is also limited by the citizenry, who ultimately would decide through elections if a second term was warranted.

Some people say that if we amend Virginia’s constitution to allow two successive terms for the governor, then we ought to consider a whole host of other constitutional reforms at the same time.  This argument sidesteps the problem by suggesting other issues.  In fact, our constitution was designed for piecemeal change.  Attempting multiple changes at the same time is as impractical as it is unwise.

Amending Virginia’s constitution requires passage of a bill in identical form by both houses of two successive general assemblies with an election occurring in between.  Then the amendment must be placed on the ballot for voter approval in a general election.

At this point, the earliest that Virginia could see a governor with a second successive term would be 2017, more likely 2021.  This makes it suddenly apparent that we are talking about long-term planning.

The absence of a long-term view for Virginia’s success is exactly the problem.  Every governor in the past 18 years has run for an additional office, laying the groundwork with party-centric or campaign patronage-driven appointments from the moment they entered office and often passing unworkable populist budget reforms on to their successors.

It is time for Virginia to allow a two-term governor.  This is both good business and good government.

Waiting beyond 2008 only further postpones the benefits of longer-term thinking and increased accountability that will come from this change.
There are many areas in which Virginia is first among all states.  This is an opportunity to eliminate a place where we are last.

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