Holdout states inch toward 4-year terms for governors

Two-year governorships, once prevalent in state government, soon may vanish from the American political scene. Only four states - Arkansas, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont - currently elect governors for two-year terms. Now, Arkansas and New Hampshire are close to switching to four-year governorships.

During the past 25 years, 15 states have switched from two-year terms to four-year terms. But in the nation's early days, most of the 13 original states elected their governors for one-year terms, says William Cassella, executive director of Citizens Forum on Self-Government/National Municipal League. Later, two-year terms were widespread, although some states, like Kentucky, which came into the Union in 1792, always had a four-year governorship, he says.

Proponents of the four-year term say such a change is desirable, even essential, to provide smooth and effective leadership in government. The longer terms also reduce campaign costs by requiring less frequent elections, they say.

However, opponents of the four-year term warn that longer terms can make governors and their administrations less responsive to the public.

Not so, insist those who favor longer terms, including attorney Larry Wallace of North Little Rock, Ark., who is spearheading an initiative petition campaign to put the question on the Arkansas ballot in 1984.

''Two years is simply too short a period for a governor - any governor - to concentrate on long-range programs and problem-solving,'' he says.

Although not directly involved in the campaign to collect some 80,000 voter signatures, Gov. Bill Clinton (D) and Frank White, his Republican predecessor, both are on record favoring the change.

In New Hampshire, the four-year-term proposal definitely will appear on the 1984 ballot. The measure, which cleared the state House on a 282-to-57 vote and the Senate on a 17-to-6 tally, now requires two-thirds of the voters to ratify it.

Last November, a similar constitutional amendment fell just short of the needed two-thirds endorsement by voters.

Under the current two-year term, ''a new governor is hardly indoctrinated in his job before it is time to begin raising funds to run for reelection,'' says state Rep. Marshall A. French (R) of Meredith, sponsor of the amendment proposal.

Foes of the four-year term - including Meldrim Thomson Jr., the conservative Republican who served as New Hampshire's governor for three terms from 1973 to 1978 - contend that holding gubernatorial elections every two years keeps the head of state closer to the people. These sentiments echo those of the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire's largest daily newspaper and a longtime conservative political influence in the state.

Republican Gov. John H. Sununu has declined to take a stand on the four-year question, explaining that he has not been in office long enough to know whether a two-year term is too short.

In addition, possibilities of four-year terms in Rhode Island and Vermont are being weighed by state lawmakers.

Vermont Gov. Richard A. Snelling (R) earlier this year proposed a state constitutional change, but it was not approved. A new try is expected during the 1984 lawmaking session. If approved by a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, the four-year proposal would have to get another legislative endorsement in the 1985 session before being put to the voters for ratification.

Meanwhile in Rhode Island, proponents of the four-year term, who saw their proposal fail last year by a little over 7,000 votes, are considering a new campaign to put it back on the ballot in 1984.

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