THE EARLY governors in Virginia were chosen by the General Assembly, and not by the commonwealth’s voters. It wasn’t until after the Constitution of 1851 that the legislature turned over that duty to residents.
Even then, the General Assembly’s loosening of the reins only went so far — the governor’s tenure was limited to a single four-year term.
While 49 other states and the federal government all allow their top executive to run for a second term, Virginia’s lawmakers have strongly resisted a change that they think would give the governor and voters more power, while diminishing some of theirs.
The are wrong to be so short-sighted and selfish, but they are right about a shift in the balance of power. A governor who has the opportunity to serve up to eight years would be able to accomplish more of his or her initiatives, while following through on longer-term priorities for the commonwealth.
The power shift wouldn’t be extreme, and it would hardly diminish the legislature’s strong hand on state government. It would, however, create a more effective executive branch.
Any change to the governor’s term limit would have to made as a constitutional amendment, which is a lengthy process. But the legislature isn’t interested in starting that process; bills to allow the governor to serve more than one term end quickly most years in a legislative committee.
This year is no different. In one of the first actions of the legislative session, a state Senate committee effectively killed a bill by Sen. Adam Ebbin, a Democrat from Alexandria, that would have allowed Virginia’s governor to serve two consecutive terms beginning in 2021.
By setting the date for 2021, the bill removed any political considerations from the vote because Republicans and Democrats would have an equal opportunity at the governor’s seat in 2021 and beyond. The current occupant, Gov. Ralph Northam, would still be ineligible to run again in four years.
The Senate bill can be considered again in 2019, but there’s little reason to expect that the outcome will be different in another year.
So, as Northam gets his administration under way in Richmond, he knows — like all governors before him — that the clock is ticking and his time in office will end four years from now, even if he is extraordinarily successful in his job and a majority of voters want him to serve another term.
At least Northam benefits from having served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Terry McAuliffe and has kept some of that administration’s leadership in place. Otherwise, a new governor has to spend a considerable amount of his early tenure getting a team in place and establishing new goals.
The value of continuity of leadership and direction is hard to measure, though it is appreciable. And the lost opportunities caused by the frequent turnover of governors is hard to determine as well.
State lawmakers do recognize the value of experience — for themselves, at least. Long-term legislators are considered favorably for leadership positions and consulted for seasoned advice on how state government and the legislative process works. They understand that experience can help them to become better in their positions.
Even Virginia’s attorney general is allowed to seek a second term, as Mark Herring was successful in doing last year because voters thought his accomplishments had earned him another four years in office. In his race for re-election, he had to answer questions about his office’s successes and failures, and his goals for the future.
The commonwealth’s voters should have the same opportunity to judge governors by those standards as well. By bottling up these bills in legislative committees each year, lawmakers are not only holding back the executive branch, they’re refusing to give voters the authority to decide whether a governor deserves more time in office.