It’s time again for my biennial screed against Vermont’s two-year term for elected executive and legislative positions. I’ve watched the damage done by this narrow time horizon play out for the 50 years I’ve been observing Vermont politics. It’s worth noting that Vermont and New Hampshire are the only remaining states in the nation that still have a two-year term for governor. But then again, New Hampshire has always defied the norm with its 424 lawmakers. Vermont has 180.
Some time back, I would be asked annually by Sen. Bill Doyle to come and talk to his Committee on Government Operations about the folly of the two-year term. My message is the same today, but the issue is considerably more urgent.
The pace of discovery — and therefore change — in business, education, communications, healthcare and the environment due to increasingly complex technologies, pervasive special interests, and intersecting regulations demands a more deliberative process and planning than occurs when the governor, legislators and agency heads have a two-year employment contract.
Our short-term civic process is plagued with reactive posturing and nitpick lawmaking. An adverse event occurs. We wring our hands and create new laws, not taking the time to understand and address the root cause of the adverse event. Constantly cycling leadership terms only generate more reactivity and shortsightedness.
If we’re to address the long-term problems and complex systems that beset our state and communities, we need to expand the opportunity timeline for our leaders to be successful. Otherwise, like Sisyphus, we’ll be doomed to constantly re-addressing the painful results of our shortsightedness and lack of strategic planning.
If we do continue the two-year term for governor and legislators, we must fully understand the time-cycle’s downsides.
Someone spends months begging for and spending money on media vying to become a leader. They’re elected. They spend six months to a year learning the realities of the job they’ve been elected to fill; then they make needed changes in the leadership team to ensure breadth of inputs, strategies and skills, and then begin planning and addressing the issues they face. This means listening, deriving consensus, planning and deploying a new strategy or policy, and then … their term is up unless the electorate chooses to extend it.
As opponents of the four-year term argue, Vermonters often extend the term for their politicians, but not always. Fifty-eight of Vermont’s 82 governors have served only two two-year terms (one four-year term). Only since Gov. Phil Hoff in the 1960s have Vermonters begun extending longer terms to their governors.
A new governor has no idea, or guarantee, that they will get to see their planning and hard work through to results. Meanwhile, 18 months in, they need to start campaigning for an extension to their tenure. This often means having to make new promises to voters rather than completing the work they have just initiated.
Sadly, campaign messaging and leadership strategies rarely align. Telling an electorate what they want to hear is “politics,” while telling the complex truth about the challenges we face is the moral imperative for an elected leader.
I was active in the business community for some 45 years and never met an experienced leader who would assume responsibility for taking on leadership of an $8 billion enterprise with a two-year employment agreement and a one-year budget horizon. By extending the time horizon to a three- to five-year budgeting-planning process, with annual adjustments, legislators and agency heads will have a longer time horizon in which to make, plan and deploy substantive improvements, and Vermonters might get less politics and ideology and more pragmatic, participatory leadership.
Unlike many strategic issues, the four-year term doesn’t seem to be a partisan issue. Former Gov. Howard Dean opposes it, stating that the two-year term optimizes leadership opportunities for change. His terse, if simplistic, response to the question was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s response, which favored a four-year term, was more deliberative, suggesting that the two-year term is a throwback to the days when governing was a part-time job and she added that lobbyists gain too much power when the governor is busy campaigning for office so much of the time instead of doing the hard work of leadership.
Current Gov. Phil Scott also supports a constitutional amendment to effect a four-year term, as does former Gov. Jim Douglas.
In February 2020, the initiative died, however, in the government operations committee of Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, as she was on record opposing an extension of the term.
The discussion of a four-year gubernatorial term rightfully raises the question of whether it should also apply to legislators. I would argue that it should for the very same reasons. If the Legislature is to tackle the complex issues of today, they need the tenure to listen, understand, deliberate, and make change in a reasonable timeframe, absent the pressures of political campaigning.
In this day and age, Vermont can only benefit from a four-year leadership term for governors and legislators and at least a three-year budgeting cycle. It’s also worth considering reestablishing a strategic-planning group that watches demographic, environmental, economic and technical change and challenges, and assesses and interprets data and trends for all branches of government — a look over the bow instead of the stern.
Finally, the cost of biennial campaigning in time, money, and distraction benefits only media vendors and special interests. The need to understand and address pressing problems is moved to the back burner, while change accelerates at an ever-more rapid pace.
Think about what didn’t even exist in the last biennium.
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