One-term governors rush to bad results

Published 8:44 pm Saturday, May 31, 2014

State Delegate Chris Jones’ resolve to get to the bottom of the Route 460 boondoggle is welcomed. How taxpayers could spend $300 million on a new Suffolk-to-Petersburg toll road without a single shovel of dirt being turned and without even the proper regulatory approval in place is a question that demands answers. We hope Jones, who carries much clout in Richmond, will get them.

The 460 project revives another long-debated question: whether Virginia’s one-term limit for governors is good policy.

Politically, this is probably not the best time for advocates of gubernatorial term-limit reform to make their case. Given the scandal-ridden end of Bob McDonnell’s tenure as governor, one could argue strongly in favor of the status quo.

Email newsletter signup

Yet, the 460 controversy illustrates the dangers inherent when politicians have just four years to enact their agendas and leave their marks on the commonwealth.

The Route 460 project was unquestionably Bob McDonnell’s baby. He conceived it, sold it to lawmakers and citizens with evangelistic fervor, and ultimately ramrodded through a flawed contract with a private partner so quickly that taxpayers are left to wonder who picked our pocket.

In retrospect, we wonder if a governor with the option of seeking a second term would have moved so recklessly. Given his zeal for the project, we have to think McDonnell considered 460 a cornerstone of his legacy as governor and thus rushed to get it under construction before he left office.

He’s not the first governor whose short-term ambition drove bad public policy. Jim Gilmore’s populist insistence on phasing out Virginia’s car tax in the late 1990s proved fiscally disastrous for state government when the economy tanked in 2001.

A two-term, eight-year limit would take some of the pressure off future governors and allow for more thoughtful deliberation by lawmakers on major initiatives. Where governors have good ideas that merit implementation, eight years affords plenty of time to see them through to fruition.

Route 460 is a great example. Despite intense opposition from landowners and small towns along the current route, a new interstate-quality highway connecting Hampton Roads to points northwest could do wonders for the Port of Virginia and, in turn, the state and regional economies.

But such a project takes time. Done hastily, you end up with poorly conceived designs such as the McDonnell-envisioned 460 path that would have destroyed a record amount of wetlands had it been constructed.

While Jones and his fellow lawmakers dig for answers that, we hope, will prevent such costly mistakes in the future, they should also give citizens the opportunity to amend the state constitution and allow governors to succeed themselves.

Haste has no place in the arena of sound public policy.