Ask Bob: Why Does Vermont's Governor Have A Two-Year Term?

Feb 20, 2018

Longtime VPR reporter Bob Kinzel is ready to answer your questions about the inner workings of the Legislature, state government and Vermont's political history.

Today's question was originally sent to our podcast, Brave Little State and inquires about the length of the state's gubernatorial term.

Alfonso Villegas of South Burlington asks: "My question is why does Vermont have a two-year term for governor? Once elected, a governor has about less than a year to learn the job and do work before they have to start campaigning again. To me, it seems like a waste of money having to campaign every two years."

So why does Vermont's governor have a two-year term?

There are several reasons why Vermont and New Hampshire are the last two states to keep a two-year term. There's a sense with some voters that they want the opportunity to review how a governor is doing every two years.

Some believe there's a benefit to having a governor address current issues and defend their priorities in a statewide campaign every two years. If something bad takes place — let's say, a scandal of some sort or an unexpected development that becomes a dominant issue for the state — then voters have a chance to give the incumbent either a vote of confidence or vote them out of office.

It's worth noting that unlike some states, Vermont does not have a recall process to remove a governor from office, so the two-year term serves as a method of accountability.

It also requires a constitutional amendment to change to a four-year term, and that's a very long, difficult process.

Click here to submit your question to Bob!

Attempts to change the term length

The two-year term has been on the minds of lawmakers for over 100 years.

Vermont actually went to a two-year term in 1870, but then in 1880 there was an effort to switch back — but it failed. Since 1880, there have been 18 efforts to amend the Vermont constitution to expand the governor's term to four years. All 18 attempts have been unsuccessful.

In recent years, a constitutional amendment has either made it to the Senate floor or over to the House. But again, it's a very complicated process to pass a constitutional amendment.

First, it needs to start in the Senate and it needs to win two-thirds of the votes in the Senate. Then it goes over to the House, where it has to receive a simple majority. If that happens, you have to wait for a while because the plan has to be considered by the next Legislature that's elected.

Then it starts in the Senate again — this time it only needs a simple majority, and if it's approved, it goes back to the House. Now if the House approves it that second time, again by a simple majority, it goes to voters in a statewide referendum.

Back in 1974, it actually made it all the way to a statewide referendum. But this was right around the time of Watergate, and Vermont voters said 'no way' to a four-year term for governor.

But most governors get a second term anyway

Virtually every governor who's been elected over the past 100 years was re-elected to a second term in office — sometimes even a third term, occasionally a fourth term. Former Gov. Howard Dean had five terms.

So some people think it's really not that important to have a four-year term because almost every governor is going to serve four years if they want.

Now the key word there is "almost." Just one incumbent governor was actually defeated in a re-election bid after one term. Here's what happened:

In 1960, House Speaker F. Ray Keyser won the Republican gubernatorial primary in a four-way race with just 29 percent of the vote. At the age of 33, he won the general election to serve as Vermont's youngest governor.

Then in 1962, a group of Republican leaders — including former Bennington County Sen. T. Garry Buckley — decided they've had it with Keyser. For Buckley, the final straw was a decision by the governor to award a contract for the Green Mountain Racetrack in Pownal to an out-of-state firm.

The Democratic candidate in that gubernatorial race was Burlington Rep. Phil Hoff. Buckley and the others created the Vermont Independent Party so that disillusioned Republicans could vote for Hoff without casting a Democratic ballot; they could instead do it for an independent ballot.

The independent vote gave Hoff the margin of victory. He became the first Democratic governor in Vermont. But who knows what would have happened if that independent vote hadn't taken place?

Let's talk about money

Does having elections every two years mean the candidates actually spend more money?

It's not a perfect analogy, but looking at the races for the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate in Vermont we see a lot more money being spent on the U.S. Senate races — at least triple the amount than in the U.S. House race.

Now the U.S. Senate elections only happen every six years as opposed to every two years for the U.S. House. Is the length of term an important factor in the amount of money being spent to elect a Senate candidate? It's unclear.

Click here to submit your question to Bob!

And then there's the lawmakers' terms

Many lawmakers feel very strongly that if you're going to extend the governor's term in office, then their term should be extended too — otherwise there's a feeling that the executive branch will simply have too much power.

There have been all sorts of different proposals over the years, including to have a four-year term for senators, but keep the two-year term for the House. However that doesn't go over very well with House members.

Then you have had a four-year term proposed for all lawmakers. And there even has been an amendment that created a six-year term for senators, while keeping a two-year term for the House.

It's fair to say that until the length of terms for lawmakers are addressed, then it's pretty unlikely that the Legislature will vote to support a four-year term for governor — and that makes the whole political discussion a lot more complicated.

Any chance for a constitutional amendment in 2019?

2019 is the next time that lawmakers can consider a constitutional amendment, and it's very likely that there will an bill introduced creating a four-year term for governor.

Then the list of questions will begin. If Vermont goes to a four-year term should there be any term limits? Some previous constitutional amendments have included a two- or three-term limit.

There are a bunch of other issues involved in this discussion, but we'll have to wait until next year to see what ultimately plays out.

Click here to submit your question to Bob!

Want more answers from Bob? Check out our previous installment of "Ask Bob" about the number of lobbyists in Montpelier.