In a couple of days Governor Bob McDonnell will present a proposed budget to the General Assembly for the next two years. Early announcements about what it contains have been good: critically needed funding for mental health and restoration of funding to education programs. What is unique about the budget is that Governor McDonnell will not be around to defend or to implement it. The Constitution of Virginia limits the governor to one term. A governor can run a second time as Mills Godwin did in the 1960s, but the terms cannot be successive.
The limitation on executive leadership goes back to the earliest days of Virginia as a state. Concerned about the excesses of the king, the leaders of the newly independent Virginia limited the governor to terms of one year. Patrick Henry was the first governor who served for multiple years, but he had to be re-elected each year. While it is seriously questionable whether Governor McDonnell could have been re-elected with his serious ethical lapses, he simply was not allowed by the Constitution to stand for re-election. All governors have been constrained in what they were able to do by the necessity that they get their work accomplished in four years.
I have supported several attempts over many years to amend the Constitution to allow the governor to serve two terms, but these efforts have not been successful. If the legislature approved such an amendment, it would have to approve it a second time after an election and then put it before the people in a referendum. Because of the timeline involved, such an amendment would not apply to the governor who was in office at the time. I continue to support a constitutional amendment to permit the governor to serve two terms, recognizing that the electorate can still enforce a one-term limit if it chooses to do so.
The electorate can likewise limit the terms of members of the House of Delegates to two years or any multiple thereof and of the Senate to four years or any multiple of four. Members serve at the will of the people for the amount of time determined by the electorate and not by an arbitrary number in the Constitution. There is less need for a specific time limitation because the General Assembly is made up of part-time citizen legislators rather than being full time like the governor. While some states have chosen to limit legislators to a set number of years, the experience in these states has been a serious loss of experience in the legislature and an increase in the power of staff and lobbyists.
To ensure that the people are truly free to choose their legislators, an independent non-partisan redistricting process needs to be put into place. Under the current gerrymandering process, legislators choose the people they want to represent rather than the people choosing their legislators. A commission that I first proposed in 1982 and continue to advocate for would take the task of redistricting from legislators and give it to an independent body. Open elections with competitive races are the best form of term limits.