Thursday, December 31, 2009

Robert F. McDonnell hasn’t served a day as Virginia’s chief executive, but the governor-elect already says he will work to overturn a Virginia law forbidding governors from serving consecutive terms.

The proposal is part of a package of government reforms put forth by Mr. McDonnell, who said Monday that he also would back a bill requiring governors to introduce their biennial budgets in odd-numbered years so that incoming chief executives are not saddled with the budgets introduced by their predecessors.

“Virginia is the only state that does not allow a governor to serve consecutive terms,” McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin said. “Voters should have the opportunity to voice support of, or opposition to, a governor’s policies and proposals.”

While several former governors, and many in the business community, have advocated for change to the Virginia law - which does not limit the number of terms a governor can serve but says the terms cannot be consecutive - the General Assembly seems to have little political will to alter it.

A bill to allow a governor to run for re-election while in office was most recently defeated in 2007, when it failed to make it out of the House of Delegates Privileges and Elections Committee’s constitutional amendments subcommittee.

Robert G. Marshall, a Manassas Republican who served on the subcommittee at the time, said he sees no reason to change the law.

“I would be reluctant to do that. I have not supported that in the past. Our tradition goes back to Jefferson and our rebellion [against] the king. We did not want an overbearing chief executive,” Mr. Marshall said.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the debate over whether to change the law in Virginia has “been argued for decades” and that even former governors disagree on the idea’s merits.

“Virginia is the last state with the one-term limit,” he said. “There is no harm in discussing it. I wouldn’t say there is a groundswell among the public for moving to a two-term governorship. I rarely hear that discussed. It will be a point of controversy. A lot of Virginians are happy with the system.”

Mr. Sabato said those who support a change argue that it would help with the management of the state and business recruitment, while those opposed argue that the system works well as it is.

“The more Virginia governors I’ve known, the more grateful I’ve been for the one-term limit. I say that tongue-in-cheek; I like many of them. The arrogance of power is something that citizens need to consider,” Mr. Sabato said.

Changing the law will require an amendment to the state’s constitution - a lengthy process that requires passage of a bill by two consecutive general assemblies, with an intervening election. The measure then must be approved by votes in a referendum.

Mr. McDonnell’s legislative team is aiming to begin this process in 2011.

Only rarely have Virginia governors sought and won re-election after sitting out a term; Mills E. Godwin Jr. is the only governor to do it since state residents began directly voting for the office in 1852. Mr. Godwin served as a Democrat from 1966 to 1970 and as a Republican from 1974 to 1978.

Several of Virginia’s recent governors have advocated for the change.

“The two-term governor is better for the public,” former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, told the General Assembly in 2004 - three years after the end of his single term. “It’s better for the democracy of the state.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who left office with a 70 percent job approval rating, also failed in his bid to overturn the long-standing Virginia law.

One advantage Mr. McDonnell has over Mr. Warner is that he is a Republican and the bill’s first hearing would be before a Republican-led House of Delegates.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, narrowly failed to get his proposal - also pitched as a reform measure intended to make government more efficient - past a Republican-led House in 2003.

“Allowing a governor to stand before the people for re-election promotes accountability and allows a leader the chance - if the people concur - to carry out a long-term vision,” Mr. Warner said at the time.

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