Vermont Needs a Four-Year Leadership Term

It’s time for my decennial screed against Vermont’s two-year term for executive and legislative branches. I’ve watched the damage done by this narrow horizon play out for the 50 years I’ve been observing Vermont politics. Vermont and New Hampshire are the only states in the nation that still have a two-year term for governor.

Decades ago, I was asked 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 more urgent. The pace of discovery – and therefore change –in business, education, communication, health care 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 civic process is plagued with reactive posturing and lawmaking. An adverse event occurs; we wring our hands and create new law, 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 that beset our state and communities, we need to expand the timeline for our leaders to be successful. Otherwise, like Sisyphus, we’ll be doomed to constantly re-addressing the painful results of our short-sightedness and lack of strategic planning.

Assuming a leadership change at the gubernatorial, agency, or legislative level, let’s look at the time-cycle triggered by a two-year term. Someone spends money and months vying to become a leader. They’re chosen. They spend six months to a year learning the realities of the job they’ve been elected to fill; they make needed changes in the leadership team to ensure breadth of inputs, strategies and skills, begin planning and addressing the issues they face, derive consensus, plan deployment, and then… their term is up unless the electorate or Governor choose to extend it.

It’s often the case that Vermonters extend the term for their politicians and that governors retain their agency heads, but not always. 58 of Vermont’s 82 governors have served less than two two-year terms. Only since Governor Hoff, have Vermonters extended 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 eighteen months in, they need to campaign for an extension to their tenure, making new promises rather than focusing on planned improvements and leadership. Sadly, campaigning and leadership strategies rarely mesh. Telling an electorate what they want to hear and telling the complex truth about challenges and successes are different.

I was active in the business community for some 45 years and never met an experienced leader who would assume responsibility for leading a $6 billion enterprise with a two-year employment agreement and a one-year budget horizon. We must also extend the time horizon to a two or three-year budgeting process. With a longer time horizon in which to make, plan, and deploy substantive improvements, Vermonters might get less politics and ideology and more pragmatic, participatory leadership.

Senate President pro tem Tim Ashe has long sought a four-year term for the executive branch and is quoted in the VTDigger article above saying, “Any governor struggles to offer bold solutions and to work well with the legislature on big things because there is such a tight window between taking office and then having to face the voters again. To implement something significant with all of the intricate connections to the federal government and private sector, these are longer-term things to enact. They don’t have a two-year life cycle.” By way of example in the same interview, he added, “The scale of health care as part of Vermont’s economy was much different than it would be today. And no matter who the governor is,” Ashe continued, “the feedback loop is so fast they’re almost running for office again right after the election night.”

Unlike many strategic issues, the four-year term is hardly a partisan issue. Former Governor Howard Dean opposes it, stating that the two-year term optimizes leadership opportunities for change. Governor Dean’s terse and simplistic response to the question was, “ If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Governor Kunin’s response in favor of 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 adding that lobbyists gain too much power when the governor is busy trying to run all the time.

Current Governor Phil Scott also supports Ashe’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to effect a four year term, as does former Governor Jim Douglas.

The discussion of a four-year term always 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.

Vermont needs a 4-year leadership term for governors and legislators, at least a two-year budgeting cycle, and a strategic planning group that watches demographic, environmental, economic, and technical change, assesses and interprets data and trends for all branches of government – a look over the bow instead of the stern. The cost of biennial campaigning in time, money, and distraction only benefits media vendors and special interests. Meanwhile, progress accelerates geometrically. Think of what didn’t even exist when you were a kid.