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Congrats to all the new members of Virginia’s General Assembly. With 50 or so new faces and major generational turnover, it’s a great time to inject fresh thinking about how to make the Commonwealth work better.
Because, let’s face it, while other states have upgraded their governments to meet the challenges of the 21st century, Virginia’s political system has stayed as quaint and antiquated as a Williamsburg reenactor in breeches. With the beaten governor Youngkin pledging to work with the now Democratic-led legislature on bipartisan initiatives, I encourage the Dems to pursue some truly bold efforts at fundamental reform of Virginia politics and government – and to challenge the GOP to join them.
Here are five big opportunities to tackle:
- One-term governor
I’m going to start with one that I genuinely think the parties could agree on, if they really want to work together at all. Look at this map of governor’s term limits across the 50 states, and you’ll quickly notice that only ONE state in the entire union limits their governor to a single term – yep, that’s us. (A former governor can run for the office again after taking at least a four-year breather – i.e., no consecutive terms.)
Let’s be honest – it’s a silly historical artifact. The result is that we get governors coming into office and immediately planning their next career move – frequently, planning to run for the White House (as did Governors Youngkin, McAuliffe, Warner, Gilmore, Wilder, Allen, Robb, etc., etc.), even if they’ll sometimes settle for the Senate.
The governor becomes a lame duck the second he takes his hand off the Bible. This provision therefore reduces voters’ power to hold governors accountable, since it is guaranteed that they won’t be running for the office again.
We are so out of step with the rest of the country with this clunky provision that it is truly amazing that it has lasted this long. The only explanation I can fathom is the number of traditionalists in the Commonwealth seeking to follow a mythical “Virginia Way” and never change anything. But…can’t we finally be more practical than that?
- Part-time General Assembly, paid at the poverty level
While the one-term limit weakens every Virginia governor, it’s not like we elevate the General Assembly to fill the vacuum. To the contrary, the Commonwealth has one of the least well-paid legislatures, with some of the shortest sessions in which to get anything done.
Although Virginia is not the worst in either department, the map of states by the extent to which they have a full or part-time legislature mostly mirrors America’s red/blue divide – with Virginia’s part time, poorly paid General Assembly having more in common with the likes of the Dakotas, Wyoming and South Carolina than with those states that are powering the country forward.
Virginia State Senators and Delegates each get paid around $18,000 per year – which, by the way, is below the poverty level for a household of more than one. (Full time state legislator salaries, by comparison, range from $69k in Illinois to almost $115k in California.) The idea is that it’s supposed to be a “citizen legislature” for people with other occupations (or independent wealth) to serve as a part-time focus.
The purpose of this arrangement, I suppose, is to avoid creating a permanent political class. But in the process, it limits who is capable of serving in public office, favoring the wealthy and those already established. And it multiplies the opportunities for conflicts of interest. If you are financially dependent on keeping your law firm, consulting company or donut shop afloat, you will be awfully appreciative of those wealthy special interests who give you extra business. It also makes it easier for a governor to manipulate the makeup of the General Assembly by dangling Cabinet appointments in front of legislators, with the prospect of increasing their salary tenfold.
If you’re thinking that increasing legislators’ salary is a hard sell, politically, you are correct – but it could be justified if we also increase the amount of time during the year that we expect the General Assembly to work. Right now, their sessions last 30 days in odd years and 60 days in even years. The short sessions in particular are nearly over before they begin, with a tight calendar for introducing and passing legislation in each house, to then be shipped over the other for consideration.
It’s not a formula for thoughtfulness, deliberation, or adaptation to changing circumstances for either legislators or activists, though I’m sure that well-paid corporate lobbyists have ample time and resources to plan and write their preferred bills. So, what if we proposed to double both the session length and legislator’s salaries? If such a reform yielded a more professional legislature with more time to get their work done well – and not just to follow the lead of lobbyists – wouldn’t that be worth the greater investment?
- Off-year elections
Virginia’s politicians, parties, and activists never really get a break, since there’s an election going on the Commonwealth every damn year. It’s exhausting and wasteful – another out-of-date practice in which Virginia is out of step with most of the rest of the nation. Only four other states (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Kentucky) choose state officials in off years.
Aligning our state with the national calendar for electing the president and Congress would save everyone time and money, from state and local governments down to the campaigns themselves.
But more importantly, it is well-known that voter turnout for off year elections is regularly depressed from federal election levels. In Virginia, turnout levels surge to 70% or more in presidential years, range from around 40-60% in U.S. Congressional election years, but then plunge to around 30-45% in off year state elections (2021 being an outlier as it hit 55%).
Don’t we want more people to show up to vote for their local and state representatives? Why not make voting easy, convenient and simple for the citizenry and less of a hassle for all the players who need to work harder and spend more money trying to get voters’ attention?
- Dillon rule
After handicapping our governor and legislature, Virginia’s Constitutional structure then goes after localities. We are a “Dillon rule” as opposed to a “home rule” state, meaning that local governments cannot do anything other than what the General Assembly has explicitly granted them authority to do.
While many states offer their local governments varying degrees of home rule, Virginia in its extreme application of the Dillon rule is once again in the company of the most conservative, rural states, including Nebraska, Oklahoma and Mississippi. As a result, localities cannot, for example, promulgate building energy codes any more stringent than the state’s or set a higher minimum wage. There is limited room for local leadership and an all-purpose excuse for local officials to do next to nothing.
Virginia is thus once again deprived of countless opportunities for its public officials to respond to the will of their constituents and move society forward. It’s a frustrating situation that just continues to hold us back – and begs to be fixed.
- Campaign donation limits
So after thus restricting all the key institutions of state and local government, to whom does Virginia’s political system give power and free rein? Why, millionaires and billionaires, of course! Virginia is one of only five states with no limits on how much campaign donors can contribute. Want to shovel $2 million into the campaign promising to give you big fat tax breaks? Be our guest!
In fact, the Commonwealth is in need of all kinds of campaign finance reform, which old-fashioned Democratic party bosses like now-retired Sen. Dick Saslaw long resisted just as strenuously as Republicans did. As a result, we could not even ban the personal use of leftover campaign funds when Democrats were in charge – an embarrassingly blatant loophole inviting corruption.
But if we have to focus our quick 60-day session on just one campaign finance issue, let’s at least try to level the playing field so the wealthy cannot just empty their wallets to elevate the candidates of their choosing.
The issues listed above may not be quick or easy to resolve – most would require Constitutional amendments, a long and perilous process. But the alternative of just continuing to live under a system that confines the Commonwealth to mediocrity in so many ways is not so great.
There may never be a good time to undertake fundamental structural reform, but as the good rabbi once said, “If not now, when?”