Whether Vermont's governors should start serving four-year terms — versus two years now — is back for discussion in the halls of the Statehouse. The proposal couldn't muster legislative support in 2004, 2008 and 2012. In 1991, a similar effort began and failed. In 2016, little has changed to warrant it garnering support.
Just because Vermont is one of only two states left (New Hampshire is the other) that have two-year terms for governor doesn't mean four-year terms are the way to go. In fact, we like that we have the option to toss them out of office every couple years.
That said, Vermont's been fortunate to have had solid governors of late and we haven't shown the propensity to use that option. Sen. Jeanette White of Putney told the Associated Press that she likes the accountability to the voters that comes with a two-year term. So do we — even if it's just to affirm a decent job every two years.
The prospect that Vermonters couldn't quickly turn out of office a mistake of a governor or install a better option is not worth the risk. In Vermont, a governor who wants to serve four years ought to be elected twice. That has been the case and more in recent years.
Our Peter Shumlin will finish out his time in office having served three terms. Jim Douglas served four terms for eight years. Howard Dean had six terms, 12 years. Madeleine M. Kunin had three terms, six years.
(In fact, one has to go back to the early 1960s to find a one-term, two-year governor. For the record, that'd be F. Ray Keyser Jr. from 1961 to 1963. A Republican, Keyser lost his re-election bid to a Democrat and gained the distinction of being the first Republican to lose a gubernatorial election since the party was founded. In addition, no incumbent governor seeking re-election has been defeated since.)
The proposal would trigger a process to amend Vermont's Constitution. It would need two-thirds support in the Senate, a majority vote in the House, then a majority vote by both, and finally a majority at a statewide binding referendum before Vermonters.
Proponents, including Sen. Diane Snelling (daughter of the late Gov. Richard Snelling), say four-year terms would add stability and cut costs associated with biennial elections. Others, such as the Vermont Business Roundtable (back in 1992), have argued that longer terms of office also would attract capable people to run and allow for better financial management over the long-term. Others contend that it would remove the distraction and cost of frequent elections.
But while those are attractive arguments and will resurface in the impending debate, they simply aren't enough to convince us that a four-year term would make a governor any more or any less effective of a chief executive. Capable individuals are running for governor and getting elected in Vermont.
State budgets are built annually — not every four years. So while fiscal philosophy changes between a Democrat and a Republican governor, prudent financial management is measured year to year. As far as what elections cost, that's a price we ought to be willing to pay. Local and federal elections are so frequent, the overlap of a state election isn't breaking the bank.
It is conceivable a four-year term could create far more vicious fights for the corner office than we currently experience. Indeed, an incumbent candidate's fundraising window would expand from two years to four. The election would be more expensive, not less. Thus, it's within reason to anticipate that there would be no less distraction across a longer term in office.
Two-year elections are necessary in Vermont to keep our governors — and our electorate — on their toes and paying attention.