By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s announcement of the Governor’s Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government drew applause from across the commonwealth.
Per the governor’s office, some of the top priorities for the politician-populated commission will include drawing up caps on gifts for lawmakers, policies on personal use of campaign funds and procedures for congressional redistricting, among many others.
But the list reads like a game called “one of these things is not like the other.”
Key reform issue five of six considers a second consecutive term for Virginia governors, because “frequency of gubernatorial transitions and the impact on providing services to citizens as well as the daily operations of executive branch agencies,” according to the governor’s office.
Bright minds disagree on whether Virginia’s governor should serve consecutive terms, given Virginia is the last state in the country prohibiting it. Republicans and Democrats alike have favored and criticized the idea. But one thing is clear to Richard Kelsey, an assistant dean at George Mason University School of Law: This “has nothing to do with ethics.”
“I don’t know how to be kind about this, and I’m sorry because I’d like to say something erudite and dean-like, but the fact of the matter is it is the stupidest thing I’ve heard of in my life,” Kelsey said.
“That is not an ethical issue. That is a structure of the power of government issue that goes to the Constitution,” Kelsey said.
If anything, giving Virginia governors two terms without changing other balances in power would give Virginia’s top elected official more time to misbehave, Kelsey said.
Virginia’s prohibition on governors serving consecutive terms dates to the Reconstruction Era, when Northerners used every tool possible to water down Southern governors’ power. To counteract the handicap of a single term, Virginia has made its governor among the most powerful — if not the most powerful — in the nation.
“The Virginia governorship is one term for a very simple reason, because it is one of the mower powerful governorships in the country,” Kelsey said.
Experts, even those who generally favor two terms, have told Watchdog.org in previous stories about Virginia’s single-term governorship that a significant shift in power away from the governor’s office is needed to allow two consecutive terms.
The Legislature “really needs to have a full-fledged discussion of what authorities does a governor give up as far as appointments and that sort of thing in exchange for the Legislature passing a constitutional amendment,” Mike Thompson, president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, said in a November 2012 interview.
There are, however, a few things that an ethics commission should focus on, Kelsey said.
First and foremost, the commission shouldn’t be made up of current and former politicians, Kelsey said.
“You’re actually asking them to reduce their own power and authority to manipulate government,” Kelsey said.
Then, the first question asked needs to be this: “How can we make Virginia look like and be the most ethical state in the union?” Kelsey said. “…We ought to get back to trying to create a system where we produce statesmen.”
So, what reforms should be considered?
Just for starters, it should be clear it’s illegal for lawmakers to be offered or accept jobs in exchange for staying in or leaving the General Assembly, he said.
“If it’s not illegal, it should be,” Kelsey said.
While it’s OK for governors, who make hundreds of appointments in their term, to appoint people they know, Kelsey said it should be “self-evident” to outsiders that those individuals are highly qualified.
To the average American, these are no-brainers, Kelsey said.
“Sometimes, in modern society, the popular thing today say is this is a complicated issue,” Kelsey said. “You know, right and wrong are actually really not that complicated.”
Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be followed on Twitter @kathrynw5.