MONTPELIER — The debate over lengthening the two-year terms of Vermont’s elected officials never really ends; it just takes a hiatus. The issue has been on the state’s agenda for nearly 40 years. Both houses of the legislature voted in the early 1970s to establish four-year terms for top elected offices — only to see the proposal narrowly defeated in a statewide referendum.
And now the perennial controversy is about to be renewed, starting with a showdown in Montpelier between former Gov. Madeleine Kunin and University of Vermont political scientist Frank Bryan.
The pro and con arguments are familiar to Vermont wonks, who can nonetheless become quite heated in their exchanges, notes Glenn McRae, director of public policy programs at the Snelling Center for Government . This time around, however, the Burlington-based think tank aims to expand the discussion beyond the political elite by organizing public forums, such as next Tuesday evening’s debate in the Capital Plaza Hotel on the topic of “Vermont’s Two-Year Term: Anachronism or a Bastion of Democracy.”
Kunin will be taking the anachronism side. “It’s not a mystery why all the states except Vermont and New Hampshire have moved to four-year terms,” she says. The issues facing elected officials today are far more complex, Kunin notes, than those of 1870, when Vermont last changed its term lengths from one to two years.
“Vermont prides itself on being different,” the former governor says. “But we have to think about how different we can be in today’s world and still be effective.”
State leaders now need more time to formulate and implement policies, Kunin suggests. But with a two-year cycle, governors take office and almost immediately begin worrying about their re-election prospects, she says, adding that this mentality militates against risk-taking. Kunin, 74, recalls that she had to think carefully about potential political liabilities before deciding to push for the Act 200 growth-management law in the 1980s. “When you take risks in office,” she muses, “you need time to recover from those risks.”
Opponents of four-year terms say: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Jeanette White, chair of the state senate committee that will consider two new proposals to extend term lengths, cites former Gov. Howard Dean’s shift on the issue. Dean used to believe, like Kunin, that two-year stints encourage decision-making based more on political convenience than policy convictions. But after traveling around the country as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Dean now sees, White says, that “states with four-year terms don’t have better policies than Vermont does.”
Besides, adds White, a Windham County Democrat, “It’s the nature of elected office that you’re always running, whether the next vote is two years or four years off.”
Those who favor longer tenures argue that too much private money gets invested in candidates under the current election cycle. “We probably spend twice as much on gubernatorial elections as comparable states with four-year terms,” Kunin says.
But it’s wrong to assume campaign expenditures would be halved if voting took place half as often, White contends. An election for a four-year governor’s term would raise the stakes — and the spending, White suggests.
Races for the Vermont Legislature, by contrast, are seldom moneyball contests, adds veteran State Sen. William Doyle, who favors keeping lawmakers’ terms at two years. “Campaigns for the [Vermont] House and Senate are fairly brief, and spending on them isn’t out of control,” Doyle observes.
Lengthening state representatives’ and senators’ terms of office would undercut the ideal of a citizen legislature, White argues. “It’s not a good idea to ask people to commit to four years when they don’t know what they’re getting into,” she says. White describes the job as “very taxing,” adding, “It doesn’t pay well, either.” She would not have made her first race for the Senate in 2002 if a four-year term had awaited, White says.
But Doyle says these considerations don’t apply in the case of Vermont’s top elected leaders. The Washington County Republican is urging the Senate to support four-year terms for the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, state auditor and attorney general — but not for legislators. Doyle echoes Kunin’s rationale in advocating longer terms for these so-called constitutional offices. “We’re living today in a globalized economy, and the governor needs the ability to make long-range policy,” Doyle says.
State Sen. James Condos buys that argument, but disagrees with Doyle’s solution. If the governor’s term gets stretched to four years while lawmakers continue serving for half as long, an existing imbalance of power between Vermont’s executive and legislative branches would be exacerbated, Condos says. Under such circumstances, the Chittenden County Democrat reasons, a governor would be able to target enemy legislators in election years when his or her own incumbency was not being challenged at the polls.
Condos is sponsoring an initiative in the Senate to establish four-year terms for both legislators and constitutional officeholders.
A survey conducted last year for the Snelling Center found public support for a four-year gubernatorial term, but little enthusiasm for changing legislators’ two-year terms. The change for the governor’s office was favored by 53 percent of those polled, while only 28 percent wanted to extend lawmakers’ terms.
But even if 100 percent of Vermonters agreed that elected terms should be lengthened, it wouldn’t happen quickly. Changing the current two-year provisions would mean changing Vermont’s Constitution — and that’s a complex, protracted process.
Such a proposal must first win support from 20 of the 30 state senators. The suggested amendment then goes to the House for an up-or-down, majority-rules vote. If it survives those tests, the same proposal must be brought back to the legislature in its next biennium for another round of votes. The people would then render the final verdict in a referendum.
An amendment lengthening terms of office in Vermont would not take effect until 2012 — at the earliest.