Powers of the Governor of Virginia

My talk today is based on a series of three articles I wrote for the Associated Press back in 1952.The subject was the increasing powers of the office of Governor of Virginia, under the ever-changing State Constitution.. Those stories in turn were based on a small volume written in 1942 and published on order of the Virginia General Assembly. The author was Blake Tyler Newton and the title was The Governor of as Business Manager.”

There have, of course, been changes in the governor’s powers since 1942, so I have sought to bring the subject up to date, mainly by consulting a brand new book just published this year, entitled The Constitution of Virginia. The author is Dr. John J. Dinan of Wake Forest University. I also consulted with the reference department of the Library of Virginia.

Our Governor today is a very powerful executive. But it hasn’t always been that way. The first Governor under the constitution was the great patriot, Patrick Henry. The Virginia Convention elected him Governor on June 29, 1776, the same day it proclaimed the new constitution. He had virtually no power, nor did Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and the other early governors. They were virtual figureheads, appointed by the General Assembly and by implication subservient to that body.

Patrick Henry protested the lack of gubernatorial power. A Governor, he said, “would be a mere phantom, unable to defend his office from usurpation of the legislature. . . and he would be a dependent instead of a coordinate branch of government.”

We were still at war with Great Britain, so Patrick Henry was given the direction of the militia, but that was about all. To take decisive action, he was required to seek the advice of a Council of State, also appointed by the legislature.

The framers of the Constitution were fearful of strong executives and tyrannical power. They’d had enough of that under the absolutism of the Colonial governors.

Since the Revolution, there have been seven constitutional conventions, in 1776, 1829-30, 1850-51, 1861, 1864, 1867-68, and in 1901-02, the last of the full conventions. There have been two limited conventions, in 1945 and 1956. I covered that latter one for the AP. And there have been two Constitutional revisions, in 1928 and 1971. Since 1971 there have been some piecemeal changes to the Constitution.

The second constitutional convention, in 1830, did only a little to strengthen the powers of the governor. The Council of State, now consisting of three members appointed by the General Assembly, was reduced to an advisory role. But the Governor was still appointed by the legislature.

Some delegates did seek to empower the governor by making the office elective by the people. Delegate Doddridge said : “What is the executive of Virginia? It is nothing more or less than an emanation of the legislative power. He is appointed every year and is responsible only to those to whom his is looking for reappointment. He is a creature of the legislature and not of the people.”
The Constitution of 1850 did made significant strides in empowering the Governor. It got rid of the Council of State, and the governor became elective by the people. His term was increased from three to four years. He was, however, still ineligible to succeed himself, as he is to this day.

The legislature appointed the first 41 governors. Since 1852, the people have elected forty-two governors.

It was not until1870, that the Constitution, for the first time, granted veto power to the Governor over bills passed by the legislature. It took a two-thirds vote of each house to override.

Thirty-two years later, under the so-called Underwood Constitution of 1902, the legislative powers of the Governor were further increased in that he was granted the power to veto certain items in the appropriation bills, the so-call “item veto.” He could also suggest amendments to bills. Then the Budget Act of 1918 authorized and required the Governor to prepare and submit to the General Assembly a biennial budget.

“Thus it will be seen,” wrote Dr. George W. Spicer of the University of Virginia, “that the development of a century and a half in the office of the Governor of Virginia carried him to a position of legislative leadership and administrative impotence.” Spicer pointed out that the Governor was unable to exert any effective control even over those officers appointed by him.

But that was about to change. Nine years later, in 1926, the Virginia electorate chose for Governor a young man with, as Newton put it, “a clear vision of procedure “ and “an unquestioned political leadership.”

In his campaign for Governor, Harry F. Byrd spoke only in general terms, like the need for greater economy and efficiency in government. The people were little prepared for the revolutionary changes that Byrd proposed to the General Assembly. That body was in thorough accord with those changes, and speedily passed the necessary legislation. “The young Governor,” Virginius Dabney writes in his Virginia, the New Dominion, “convinced them that his ‘program of progress’ was essential to their political survival. And that, according to Dabney, was because the Democratic organization was in danger of losing its hold on the state because of Virginia backwardness.

Byrd was responsible for the first revision commission, a commission to suggest amendments to the constitution. There was debate about the propriety of revising the constitution in that manner, but the proposal went forward and was upheld by future court decisions.

The Assembly adopted a joint resolution proposing the short ballot amendments to the Constitution under which only the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General could be elected by direct vote of the people. Before the short ballot, the state treasurer, the superintendent of public instruction, and the commissioner of agriculture and immigration, were elected by the people. Many Virginians opposed the short ballot proposal. They held that such a curtailment of elective officers was against the principles of democratic government.

Governor Byrd explained that under the current arrangement “the Governor cannot be as much of an executive as he should be. Public opinion holds him responsible for efficiency in administration, but actually he has very limited power to control and direct administrative functions. Therefore, he said, “if Virginia is to operate with the efficiency approaching a great business corporation, we must concentrate responsibility.”

The General Assembly also created a commission made up of eminent legal authorities. Under authority of that commission, the Governor employed the New York Bureau of Municipal Research to propose a plan of reorganization. A citizens committee then looked at the recommendations and revised them to fit the conditions in Virginia.

Governor Byrd called the General Assembly to special session March 10, 1927. By action of the legislature, more than 30 minor and useless administrative agencies were abolished, and the remaining agencies consolidated into 12 administrative departments and four agencies in the Governor’s office.

The legislature, by joint resolutions, set in motion the machinery for amendments to the Constitution that established the short ballot and greatly increased the Governor’s administrative authority. It adopted them again at the regular session in 1928. In a June, 1928, election, the people approved the amendments. But it’s interesting to note, that it squeaked by only because of majorities in the Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Virginia.

“Mr. Byrd,” Newman states, “was the first Governor of Virginia , almost wholly by reason of his unquestioned political leadership, who enjoyed the exercise of those administrative powers that properly should belong to the responsible head of a state. Administrative order had come out of chaos.”

Newman points out that at the time Byrd took office, ninety-five separate agencies were responsible for the administration of the affairs of Virginia. Twenty-seven of those were authorized by the Constitution, and 68 had been created by acts of the General Assembly. Financial matters were in the hands of 16 uncoordinated agencies.

Despite these improvements during the Byrd administration, some weaknesses remained.. “Departments,” Newman writes, “ lacked administrative heads with authority to consolidate them properly and channel their energies.” Over the years since then many of these short-comings have been corrected.

One of the Constitutional questions that has been debated time and again is whether Virginia should stay with the prohibition of a governor serving consecutive terms. Virginia is now the only state in the Union to retain the one-term limit. In recent years several governors have voiced their support for reconsidering the rule, including A. Linwood Holton Jr., Gerald Baliles, L Douglas Wilder, James S. Gilmore III, and Mark Warner. Warner’s Commission on Efficiency and Effectiveness supported a change. It said a “good case can be made that long-term planning and accountability would be enhanced” by “giving the public the right to decide whether it wishes to have the power to re-elect a Governor for consecutive terms.”

Non-consecutive terms are permitted. Mills E. Godwin was Governor as a Democrat from 1966 to 1970, and as a Republican from 1974 to 1978. Incidentally when Godwin ran the first time, I wrote several speeches for him, including his first campaign speech, which, by tradition, he delivered in Alexandria. He invited me to ride with him and Governor Albertis Harrison in the Governor’s big black, seven-passenger limousine. Well, even though I was still a state department head, that was quite a heady experience.

Over two centuries, until the Convention of 1971, the Governor’s powers vis-a-vis the legislature, have increased. In recent years, however, it has been a mixed bag, with the legislature gaining additional power to override the Governor’s veto, especially through the holding of reconvened sessions, as we saw this year.

But the Governor also saw his power increased with the creation in the early 1970s of the Governor’s cabinet, and with changes that gave the Governor sole power to remove heads of administrative or executive departments.

Over a span of some 230 years, the powers of the Governor have increased from being virtually a figurehead to the powerful executive he is today. The Governor remains very much the business manager of the affairs of the Commonwealth.

A talk delivered by James J. Geary
Before the Harrisonburg chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution,
October 14, 2006