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The constitutional amendment agenda of 2007

By John McClaughry

Posted December 8, 2006

The sound and fury of election 2006 is receding, and the new legislators are assembling their agendas for 2007. The window for constitutional amendments opens next year, and there is little doubt what the leading proposal will be: The four-year term for governor and the other four constitutional officers.

Since 1870, those officers have been elected for two-year terms. Spurred by the League of Women Voters, the 1971 legislature proposed a four-year term for all five constitutional officers. The voters rejected the proposal on town meeting day 1974.

The four-year term proposal has reappeared in the Legislature every four years since 1979, but has never again won even initial Senate approval. Every governor dating back at least to Robert Stafford (1959-60) has endorsed the proposal.

Its advocates argue a new governor really needs four years to have a chance to comprehend and get control over today’s $5 billion state government behemoth and promote his agenda. He or she should not have to face a reelection campaign within a year and a half of taking office.

Against this argument, opponents say that the two-year term keeps the governor closer to the people. Most of the opponents find the size and complexity of state government regrettable, but can offer no prospect of reducing it to its size in, say, 1960.

On its merits, the four-year term proposal would seem to be assured of easy legislative passage and, in 2010, final voter approval. There is, however, one large fly in the ointment — legislators also want four-year terms.

Unlike the governor, the legislators do not have the arguments about the size and complexity of state government and the burden of statewide campaigning. Their only credible argument is that a four-year governor could have inordinate power over a two-year Legislature, perhaps intervening in legislative elections to strengthen his political hand.

Their real argument is that they just want to be spared the expense, inconvenience, and political danger of being held accountable by their voters every two years. If history is any guide, many legislators will hold the four-year term for constitutional officers hostage in the hope of getting their piece of the action.

Unlike statewide elected officials, senators have one-county districts (except for Essex-Orleans and Chittenden-Grand Isle). Even two-member representative districts have less than five thousand voters. Any legislator who finds it too daunting to campaign for reelection in such small districts every other year ought to find some more congenial pastime.

If the Legislature finds the votes to recommend the four-year term for governor officers, it follows that the other four constitutional officers will get the same. Then there is the question of the status of the attorney general. Though elected statewide, the attorney general is not a constitutional officer. Instead of giving constitutional status on that office, the Legislature ought to take it off the ballot altogether.

The governor should be given the power to appoint his or her attorney general, with the advice and consent of the Senate, just as other cabinet officers are appointed. There is no good argument for having an independent attorney general, such as the incumbent, running about the country filing political lawsuits. As it was until the 1960s, the attorney general’s client ought to be the elected governor and Legislature, not his or her concept of “the people.”

While they are at it, the Legislature ought to propose a joint ballot for the governor and lieutenant governor. This is the practice in 22 of the 45 states that have lieutenant governors, and of course for president and vice president.

And why stop there? Why not remove the secretary of state, treasurer, and auditor from the statewide ballot as well? For years, these three offices were occupied by non-partisan civil servants who quietly did their jobs. Since the early 1980s, various occupants of these offices have spent considerable time and effort scheming for political advancement. Vermont should emulate Maine and New Hampshire, and choose these officials by gubernatorial appointment or legislative election.

Having only one big choice on the ballot — the governor-lieutenant governor team — would vastly simplify elections. It would focus the public on the most important candidates and their programs. It would also spare Vermonters the burden of producing up to a million dollars to finance the separate campaigns of the other four statewide officers.

As in the past, though, the interests of aspiring politicians will probably push this needed reform off the constitutional amendment agenda.

John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a public policy think tank. For more information, visit www.ethanallen.org.