Examining the Power of Virginia's Governor

Mar 12, 2018

Governor Ralph Northam, left, address State Senators and Delegates as they gather to inform him that they are ready to adjourn the 2018 session of the General Assembly.
Credit AP Photo / Steve Helber

Governor Ralph Northam will be spending the next few weeks combing through more than 800 bills the General Assembly sent to his desk. And, he gets to make significant changes.

The role of governor in Virginia started out as kind of as an afterthought. Originally the person who held the job that was selected by members of the General Assembly. Voters didn’t get to choose the governor until the 1850. And even then, the General Assembly didn’t even send legislation to the governor. But then in 1902 the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Since that time, governors have been able to amend every piece of legislation or veto it outright. Virginia legal expert Rich Kelsey.

“The veto powers that were granted to him were actually a holdover from the Confederate Constitution," says Kelsey. "So the state Constitution is actually kind of interesting that it evolved with a piece of the Confederacy put into those powers.”

Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington says governors across the country would love to have the kind of power the Virginia governor has, not just the line-item veto but the ability to amend any bill to make it say what you want it to say rather than the way it got out of the General Assembly.

“These vetoes and these amendments still have to get through the legislature," Farnsworth says. "But it’s really a powerful way to shape the discourse in a way that you like and force the other party to take unpleasant votes if they want to oppose your initiatives as governor.”

Next month the General Assembly will meet one more time. If they can muster a super-majority, they’ll be able to overturn the governor’s vetoes. That seems unlikely considering the tight margins in the House and the Senate. The real action will be with the governor’s amendments, which can be rejected with a simple majority vote.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.