Opinion

Rinse, wash and repeat

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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To his Excellency the next Governor of Virginia: Four years is not a lot of time; you’ve got a lot to get done.  It’s not so much that the bar is set too high — how could it be?  Virginia gives its governor only four years to accomplish anything.  Most of the blocking and tackling comes down to a playbook composed of a prevent defense and a Hail Mary pass.

Like all those who’ve led the commonwealth before you, the task of a new governor largely comes down to rinse, wash and repeat, with the hope that you can stay ahead of any dirty laundry out there trying to catch up to you.  No one makes it through an election anymore without getting a little scuffed.

You’ve got to live with the fact that your current state budget was set by last year’s General Assembly and the last six months of your term will be run on a budget that you will never get to complete.  That really leaves only two midterm sessions to dance to the tune of your own biennial budget.  If this seems like a system designed to keep the executive branch from doing much, that’s right.

If you’d like to take the longer view, gubernatorial succession is where you need to start.  Virginia is the only U.S. state that doesn’t allow its governor to run for a successive four-year term. Mississippi and Kentucky eliminated their bans in 1986 and 1992, leaving Virginia the last place record holder for disallowing a successive term.

No one can say you are seeking this change out of self-interest.  It takes constitutional reform, a majority vote by both houses in two successive sessions with a statewide election in between, before it finally goes on the ballot for a statewide referendum. 

Your governorship will be long over, but Virginia will be made better by this change.  It’s also not really out of the question.  As recently as 2015, the Senate approved a measure to allow the governor a successive term, but it failed in the House.

Business leaders know that big projects take time.  Culture change alone is said to be a five-year project; perhaps some cultural change would be good for state government.  If the governorship is ever going to do anything more than rinse, wash and repeat, it has to have more time.

Let’s get at the real juggernaut, nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting.  Your term as governor falls right in the breech of this once-in-10-years process.  It’s no secret that politicians are choosing their own voters and that the party in power does its best to perpetuate itself for the next decade. This comes up again in 2021 before your term expires.

Partisanship has become more extreme with the proliferation of tailored districts that make party primaries more important than elections.  Even worse, the elimination of competition leaves incumbents unopposed and disenfranchises voters.

Unlike gubernatorial succession, changes in redistricting can be accomplished without constitutional amendment.  The governor and the General Assembly can pass legislation to appoint a nonpartisan redistricting commission and agree to be bound by its recommendations.

Unlike the last time, 2011, do not make this a powerless advisory commission.  Let’s actually get the job done.  The truth of the matter is that state and U.S. courts are well on their way to doing this already. The optics are much better for Virginia if this is accomplished by the General Assembly rather than in the courthouse.

To be certain, being governor is not just about the big things. You’ve got to sweat a lot of other stuff, including budget gaps and funding for education, transportation and economic development, as well as cybersecurity.  None of these are easy tasks and previous governors have all found progress to be pretty elusive.  There are also things that you’d probably rather not be saddled with, such as the transition of state information technology services from Northrop Grumman to a multiplicity of other vendors — that landmine’s fuse is already lit and getting ready to blow.

But the governorship is your new job.  You asked for it.  You fought for it in a tough campaign.  You’ve got just four years to see if Virginia can do more than just rinse, wash and repeat.  Let’s get it done.




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