1928 Constitution of Virginia Amendments

The size and complexity of state government operations in Virginia was small enough until the 1920's that ineffcient, fragmented management was still acceptable. Not until 1918 did the General Assembly authorize the governor to prepare a centralized state budget. The budget for the 1920-22 biennium was the first consolidated budget for all state agencies, finally leading to creation of a Division of the Budget in 1922.1

Then the voters elected Harry Byrd as governor in 1925. He was an activist who wanted to organize the Executive Branch like a corporation, which required significant changes in the traditions and structure of state government. He complained that the fragmented agencies were not accountable to the state's chief executive; most spending was done by agencies with heads which the governor could not hire or fire. Byrd sought make state government efficient and responsive by granting the governor the ability to manage state agencies directly, and holding the governor responsible for their performance similar to how a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is measured today.

In 1922, the voters had defeated a proposal to call for a new constitutional convention that could replace the 1902 constitution. However, Byrd chose a bold technique to substantially alter the structure of state government and concentrate authority in the governor's office. He used the amendment process to alter the state constitution, without a convention.2

The General Assembly agreed to pay for recommendations by a government reform "think tank" known as the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, which was chosen by Governor Byrd. The professional administrators and financial managers were appalled at the inefficiences within the decentralized, even chaotic state operations. Outright fraud and corruption were not common, but Byrd understood that many of the loose procedures provided him political flexibility and opportunities to make friends and gain favors in return.

Governor Byrd also appointed seven members to a committee tasked to prepare constitutional amendments. The chair was Robert R. Prentis, chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and the commission became known as the Prentis Commission.

Byrd also organized a Citizens' Committee on Consolidation and Simplification in Government. The Reed Commission, so titled because it was chaired by a business leader named William T. "Billy" Reed, generated political support for Byrd's plans. It reviewed the recommendations from the New York Bureau of Municipal Research and packaged them to be more politically acceptable.

Proposals to centralize financial operations were largely endorsed, but the Reed Commission rejected many recommendations for more-efficient administration. The decentralized and opaque decisionmaking process, with state agencies reporting to fragmented oversight boards, enabled the Byrd Organization to cultivate supporters and create allies. Reed and Byrd also declined to advance proposals to reform the grossly-inefficient county government operations, knowing that the political cost would exceed the benefits of greater efficiency. Byrd supporters controlled most of the "courthouse rings" of local officials; they were the base of the Byrd Organization.

The General Assembly used its authority to approve all the proposals recommended by Governor Byrd which did not require altering the state constitution. The Prentis Commission packed the remaining revisions into constitutional amendments. The legislature approved three proposed amendments in 1927 and again in a special 1928 session.3

The "General Resolution" amendment submitted to the voters in 1928 revised the 1902 constitution substantially. Among other changes, it established tight limits on state borrowing, a key concern of Governor Byrd. He had campaigned earlier against issuing general obligation bonds to fund the paving of roads, arguing instead for an increase in the gas tax to improve highways on a "pay as you go" basis after taxes were collected. A 1920 vote had amended the state constitution to allow for unlimited borrowing for road projects, without a voter referendum. The 1928 amendments imposed a debt cap, limiting the state to borrowing just 1% of the total value of assessed real estate and requiring that the voters must approve issuing bonds.

It included expanding the number of judges on the Supreme Court of Appeals from five to seven, and renamed members as justices rather than judges. The member with the longest seniority was designated as Chief Justice, eliminating the previous provision that the other "judges" should choose the "president" of the court.

The "Short Ballot" amendment left the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General as offices elected in statewide votes, but eliminated statewide elections for Secretary of the Commonwealth, State Treasurer, Auditor of Public Accounts, and Superintendent of Public Instruction. Making those positions into appointed offices simplified elections, but Byrd's primary objective was to increased the capacity of the governor to manage state agencies efficiently and to reduce costs.

The "Segregation Resolution" dealt with taxes, and had nothing to do with the racial segregation policies advocated by Byrd and his fellow Southern Democrats in the 1920's. The 1928 proposal segregated the taxation of real and personal property, giving local government complete authority over that revenue source. By preventing state taxes on property, Byrd redced the chances that a future legislature interested in improving education could impose taxes on rural farms to generate revenue for upgrading schools in urban areas.

Many rural areas saw benefits in having a local workforce with few alternatives than working on the farm, unable due to lack of education to migrate to the cities and get hired by manufacturing plants. The pipeline of talent was targeted towards agriculture, and especially ensuring black children had minimal education and thus limited options.

The Short Ballot and the Segregation Resolution were offered as separate choices on the ballot, to make the General Resolution less controversial and more likely to pass. All the proposed amendments ended up getting approved by the voters, in addition to the General Resolution. The vote for the General Resolution was 74,109 in favor to 60,531 opposed.4

Technically, the constitution after 1928 was the Constitution of 1902 as amended. Today's constitution is the same, the Constitution of 1902 as amended.

Constitutions of Virginia

1945 Constitution of Virginia Amendments

1956 Constitution of Virginia Amendments

From a "Museum of Democracy" to a Two-Party System in Virginia: the End of the Byrd Machine



1. "History of Planning and Budgeting Agencies," Virginia Department of Planning and Budget, https://dpb.virginia.gov/about/history.cfm (last checked Aril 12, 2021)
2. James Willard Hurst, The Growth of American Law: The Law Makers, The Lawbook Exchange, 2007, p.213, https://books.google.com/books?id=fT24smXtCKwC (last checked June 23, 2019)
3. "The Virginia Constitution: A Documentary Analysis," William and Mary Law Review, Volume 10, Number 2 (Winter 1968), p.514 (Table I), https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmlr/vol10/iss2/20/; Richard F. Weingroff, "Senator Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia - The Pay-As-You-Go Man," Federal Highway Administration, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/byrd.cfm; Laurence J. O'Toole Jr., "Harry F. Byrd, Sr. and the New York Bureau of Municipal Research: Lessons from an Ironic Alliance," Public Administration Review, Volume 46, Number 2 (March - April, 1986), https://www.jstor.org/stable/976163 (last checked June 23, 2019)
4. John J. Dinan, The Virginia State Constitution, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.19-20, https://books.google.com/books?id=fe9MAgAAQBAJ; "A Short History of the Supreme Court of Virginia," Supreme Cour of Virginia, https://scvahistory.org/scv/supreme-court-of-virginia/ (last checked July 21, 2021)

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