Politics

The Last One-Term Statehouse

If Virginia governors could serve two terms, they'd get a lot more done. But would the state be better off?
by | October 2005
 

Mark Warner and Jim Gilmore do not have much in common politically, but Virginia's Democratic governor and his Republican predecessor share one strong conviction: that their commonwealth has been hamstrung by an archaic provision that weakens it in a competitive world. Virginia is the only state in the country that bars its governors from seeking reelection. Gilmore had to step down after one term in 2002; Warner, who is highly popular among the voters right now, will be leaving in January. Whoever wins the office next month-- Democrat Tim Kaine or Republican Jerry Kilgore--will get four years to enact his agenda. Then he, too, will be gone.

Warner tried and failed to get the law changed during his term in office; Gilmore was with him on that issue. "We're the only state in America that does this, and it's really stupid," says Gilmore. "If a governor is trying to be a change agent, to change the culture of the state, that is a hard thing to do in four years." Warner's secretary of administration, Sandra Bowen, sums up her boss's views in similar fashion: "How would you like to run a Fortune 300 company and try to reengineer it and make it more competitive in the global marketplace, and it's guaranteed that all of top management will change every four years?"

It's an issue that students of Virginia government might want to ponder as they prepare to vote in a new regime next month, just as they have done quadrennially since the 1870s. Are Warner and Gilmore pointing to a serious flaw, one that condemns the state to the status of an unstable governmental backwater, too stuck in its ways to thrive in the 21st century? Or does Virginia's "archaic" system offer benefits that should not be overlooked?

To hear some of the critics, you might imagine that the state simply changes leadership too often to practice sound and consistent management. But you would be wrong. Virginia ranks among the best- administered states in the nation. It is a national leader in electronic procurement systems and workforce management, in clear-eyed budgeting processes, strategic planning, performance measurement and IT practices. When the Government Performance Project, a state management assessment funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and carried out by Governing, looked at all 50 states earlier this year, Virginia was one of only two (the other was Utah) to get top overall marks. "There is little that Virginia does not do well in government management," the authors of the report wrote in our February issue. "Virginia has an ethos of good management that has genuinely been institutionalized."

Those who like Virginia's single-term system, such as former governor and current U.S. Senator George Allen, don't argue that it has single- handedly turned the state into an administrative model, but they do point out that it doesn't seem to be hurting much--and that there are virtues on the political side. The one-term limit, they believe, promotes balance between the executive and the legislature and ensures that the top ranks of state government will be open to new blood every few years.

Others say that Virginia's reputation as a well-run state has mostly to do with other historical factors besides rotation in power. Most important, says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, "is the political culture in the state. Ever since the Civil War, we've had an emphasis on good management, elimination of debt and a kind of pay-as-you-go mentality." And that leads proponents of change to insist that if their state can function this smoothly with a four-year revolving door, it could function even better without it. "Virginia's doing pretty well," admits Bowen, the administration secretary. "But we could do it so much more efficiently and cost- effectively."

Still, while it might be overreaching to suggest that Virginia is well-governed because of the unique law, it's worth wondering whether there is at least a link between the two--whether, that is, the discipline imposed by the one-term cap has forced state government to adapt institutionally in ways that help, rather than hurt, it. And while it's unlikely that any other state could or would want to move in Virginia's direction, there might be lessons in Virginia's experience that other states might want to heed.

REPEAL EFFORTS

Virginia's status as odd state out in gubernatorial tenure is, in fact, relatively new. Half a century ago, some 15 states prohibited their governors from succeeding themselves, including Pennsylvania, Indiana and the entire South except for Arkansas. That began to change in the 1960s, and by the 1980s, only three states were left: Mississippi, Kentucky and Virginia.

Mississippi repealed its one-term law in 1986 as part of a wide- ranging push by reformers to modify a Reconstruction-era constitution that had left governors almost powerless and made the speaker of the House the most powerful figure in the state. The switch in Kentucky came in 1992, after voters changed the constitution to allow succession in various offices. That decision, taken in conjunction with an effort to modernize and professionalize state government, passed only after the incumbent governor at the time, Brereton Jones, agreed not to use it to seek a second term himself.

Virginia has seen its own repeated efforts to repeal the law. For the past 14 years, a Republican legislator from Virginia Beach named Harry "Bob" Purkey has agitated for it, repeatedly filing legislation in the House of Delegates to change the constitution to allow second terms. "This is something he does as much as breathing, I suppose," remarks Delegate Bob Marshall, a Republican colleague of Purkey's who held hearings on the measure and wound up opposing any change. "I didn't necessarily find any inherent connection," Marshall explains, "between the benefits supposed to come from having the governor able to succeed himself and the two terms." (By law, Virginia governors are allowed to seek the office again after being out for four years, but hardly any of them try; it has been done successfully just once in the past century.)

For Purkey, the issue is clear-cut: It comes down to economic development and political accountability. "We have to create 55,000 new private-sector jobs every year to accommodate our population growth," he says. "But governors get right in the middle of an economic development issue and are involved in bringing jobs to Virginia, and by the time some of these deals come to fruition, they're out of there. Then it takes time for the new governor and staff to catch up." Moreover, he argues, a single term limits the degree to which a governor feels liable for his actions. "Being accountable to the public by virtue of the fact that you can be thrown out," he says, "is so overwhelmingly important."

Opponents counter that not many governors elsewhere are thrown out after one term anyway, and at least Virginia can guarantee a spirited campaign every four years for the most important office on the statewide ballot. "We have very little competition in Virginia politics today," says Paul Goldman, who was a top aide to former Democratic Governor L. Douglas Wilder and is now Wilder's right-hand aide in the Richmond mayor's office. "If you go to a two-term governor, you would eliminate the only area of competition we really have now, which is at the statewide level."

The one-term rule might seem to be a recipe for wild political swings and a certain inconstancy to state government life; in truth, however, it has produced just the opposite--a political system that places a premium on moderation. "People generally think of us as stick-in-the- mud, not very innovative or creative," says Sabato. "Generally that's true, but it also means we rarely engage in dangerous experimentation that ruins the state."

In fact, the single-term governorship has forced state government to learn how to keep itself on an even keel. To begin with, governors and their political appointees simply don't have time to conduct wholesale shakeups or lard the bureaucracy with their own hires. "Time is their enemy," says Sabato. "Governors have to jump right in and get their agenda adopted or they're going to have an empty term. They don't have the luxury of a lot of administrative turmoil."

As a result, over the course of its history, Virginia has developed a civil service that has become a stabilizing force in its own right. "We have a long tradition of quality civil servants who are apolitical and perform good public service," says former Democratic Governor Gerald Baliles, who served from 1986 to 1990. "They become indispensable: They possess the institutional knowledge that allows a governor to perform good service, and they constrain the opportunity for political mischief, where you have civil service positions filled by campaign operatives, which is a recipe for disaster."

For the most part, the nature of the budget cycle also hems in the governor. Virginia works on a two-year budget calendar, so a new governor's first budget is, in fact, crafted by his predecessor, and his only full chance to put his stamp on the budget comes halfway through his one term. "There are some disadvantages to that," says Baliles, "but it also tends to moderate enormous swings in budget priorities and governmental policies. If a new governor wants to make changes to the budget by the outgoing governor, it requires him to work together with the legislature."

As a result, the legislature--like the budget cycle and the civil service--has become a force for stability in state government. Legislators in Virginia are not term-limited, and over the years, the members of the various money committees have developed a reputation for careful stewardship of the state's finances. In 2002, with Warner's collaboration, the legislature also mandated a six-year budget forecast, which serves to constrain politically popular tax cuts or budget additions that carry a hefty price tag in the out- years. Moreover, the legislature has developed a nonpartisan research infrastructure--in particular the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission--that gives it a solid oversight footing.

None of this means that governors are doomed to irrelevance during their single terms. Doug Wilder, for instance, fixed a $2 billion revenue shortfall by cutting some services while seeking to protect social services for the poor; he also created the state's first "rainy day" fund so that his successors would have a freer hand in a sour economy. Allen focused on education standards, overhauling the state's juvenile justice system, and crafting welfare reform. "The four-year term limit," he wrote recently, "does not prevent an administration from taking action that can have a positive impact on the lives and opportunities of Virginians."

When a governor has especially broad ambitions, however, the single term can indeed bring him up short. It is no accident that the most adamant voices calling for constitutional change belong to Gilmore and Warner, who each in his own way set out to overhaul Virginia and found four years to be maddeningly short.

THE TICKING CLOCK

Gilmore, an ideological and partisan conservative, set out as governor to place his stamp on Virginia but found that his time in office constrained him. His signature issue was a massive reduction in the car tax, a politically popular move that eventually embroiled him in a standoff with the Republican-controlled state Senate when it became clear that the loss in revenues was setting the state on unsound financial footing. Gilmore contends that in a second term, he could have set things right. "If I'd had an opportunity to bring the state back out of recession," he says, "then people would have seen that running the state while cutting car taxes and not raising taxes was possible." He still resents the fact that not only was he denied that chance but also that he had to yield after four years to a governor determined to undo what he'd done. "It was absolutely unnecessary for [Mark Warner] to raise taxes," Gilmore says, "in order to fix some fictitious shortfall."

Warner, of course, doesn't see it that way. He points out that he took office facing an estimated $800 million shortfall that was quickly revised to $3 billion and eventually to $6 billion. The 2004 tax increase, part of a larger restructuring package that also cut some taxes, came out of Warner's belief that the state had no other way to get back on solid ground. "We had cut each agency by an average of 20 percent," says Finance Secretary John Bennett. "We had enacted reforms. We'd looked at a long-term financial projection that showed we would continue to have budget shortfalls unless we did something more aggressive. So it was born of long-term planning and cuts and reforms, because even after those things, it was clear we would not solve our problem."

Warner was able to enact the plan in concert with a Republican- controlled legislature in part because the state's fiscal circumstances demanded a response, and in part because his administration worked closely with the legislature's money committees, which have enormous power over fiscal affairs in Virginia. This, too, is a rigor imposed by the single term: Without the leverage of reelection, governors have little chance to use public sentiment to challenge the legislature. "Rather than having time to persuade people," says Gilmore, "and even take your case back to the people if you can't persuade members of the legislature, you have to use all the power of the governorship in order to effectuate your program, because otherwise the legislature can just wait you out."

Given the realities of the ticking four-year clock, most Virginia governors have focused on policy and barely tinkered with the structure of government--another source of stability when it comes to management. "When you have X days," says William Leighty, an executive-branch veteran who is Warner's chief of staff, "you'll spend them on the policy issues, not reading audit reports or driving process improvement. You'll say, 'I just want all those things over there to run well and not get in my way.'"

Warner has not played things that way. A technology entrepreneur in private life, he has spent an unusual amount of his limited time remaking the state government apparatus to instill greater efficiency, performance standards and a more business-like approach. This has included changing the budget process to include long-term financial planning, setting performance requirements for agency heads and reconfiguring the state's procurement processes and information technology structure.

Warner's accomplishments here have been substantial, but they have been affected at every point by the difficulty of trying to implement such massive managerial reforms in just one term. Paradoxically, this has helped make them stronger. Haunted by the worry that state employees might simply wait them out, administration officials have worked especially hard to institutionalize them.

They have done this by finding influential supporters outside the bureaucracy who can ensure that the changes last beyond a single term. Warner, as part of his effort to reform state purchasing and real estate management, built a coalition that included private contractors as well as public officials. In the case of purchasing, says Administration Secretary Sandra Bowen, "we invited in all the people who had been selling office products to agencies of the commonwealth and filled up a room. What we were doing was a little threatening to them, because they'd been able to take advantage of our not doing our work smartly. I told them, 'We respect that you're in business to make a profit, but now take that hat off and put your taxpayer hat on.'" The result, Bowen believes, is that the new procedures now have private-sector advocates who will still be doing business with the state once she and Warner leave office--and will do it in a more rational way.

This determined marketing of change, pursued under the pressure of Warner's impending departure, "gives me confidence that the vast majority of our management changes will remain," says Leighty. But he still thinks that the one-term limit restricts how much can be accomplished. "Why do we have 90 separate financial accounting systems?" Leighty asks. "Why, as a governor, would anyone really want to invest a lot of time rebuilding the financial system when it'll take five or six years to get that done? Why even start? In a second term, we could have done something about this."

These are understandable frustrations, but even there, Virginia has created a partial answer. The legislature, at the urging of Warner and a group of business leaders, has set up and funded an agency called the Council on Virginia's Future. Its goal, says retired communications executive John Wynne, a leading player in the effort, is essentially to become an institutional force for sound state planning and good management.

In the end, it could be rendered moot. Bob Purkey is confident that if he can bring his two-term measure to a popular vote, it will pass. "The greatest fear opponents have is it will get on the ballot," he says, "because their fear is that it will pass overwhelmingly." If that should happen, Virginia would lose its unique status. But it would be left with some crucial ingredients of the old system: bureaucrats who know how to build political support for change; a legislature willing to take the lead on crucial issues; and a broad- based public council with a mandate to plan for the state's future. That might not be a bad legacy for an "archaic" law to leave behind.

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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