Boots & Sabers

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0921, 17 Jul 19

Veto reform is badly needed

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday:

When the Wisconsin Legislature passed the state budget, it already had an irresponsible $500 million spending increase for K-12 education. With a stroke of his pen, Governor Evers used his powerful veto to increase spending by another $87 million. Now some lawmakers are proposing reining in the Wisconsin governor’s ability to use a veto to increase spending.

Governor Evers and his comrades have decried the attempt to curb the governor’s veto power as a partisan endeavor. Perhaps it is. And perhaps it would have been a worthwhile reform when one part controlled the legislative and executive branches. Even so, it often takes the abuse of power to spark reform, and this reform is badly needed.

Wisconsin’s governor has the most powerful veto pen in the nation. Forty-four states give their governor some form of line item veto authority, but they all have restrictions. Wisconsin’s governor has the fewest restrictions. He or she can veto numbers, strike out individual words, edit the meaning of sentences, and even arbitrarily reduce appropriated amounts. Up until 2008, when the voters last reformed the veto power, the governor could even strike out individual letters to create new words.

This vast veto authority gives Wisconsin’s governor an extraordinary amount of power to essentially write legislation by carving up what the Legislature sends to his or her desk. While it is true that the Legislature can override a veto by a twothirds majority, it rarely happens due to the high electoral bar.

There is an argument that governors should not have a line item veto at all. The governors of six states and the president of the United States do not have a line item veto authority. When a bill reaches their desks, they must veto the bill in its entirety or allow it to become law.

Our federal Constitution, which also served as a model for many state constitutions, was predicated on the notion that concentrated power is injurious to liberty. That is why our three branches of government are integrated with a complex system of checks and balances that are meant to assure that no one branch, and certainly no one person, can wield too much power.

While in theory, a line item veto can be overridden as easily as a full veto, the real world disproves that theory. Legislation – particularly a budget – is always the amalgamation of a thousand different compromises. Any final piece of legislation has been put through the grinder of legislative committees, public hearings, and two houses of the legislature. By the time it reaches the governor’s desk, a piece of legislation is a network of interdependent priorities and conditions. When a governor vetoes a part of the legislation, it short circuits the network and undermines the legislature’s intent. Since a partial veto only strikes out a piece of the compromise, there are rarely enough votes behind an individual item in a bill to override the governor’s veto.

The constitutional amendment being circulated by Sen. David Craig and Rep. Mike Kuglitsch does not even approach eliminating the governor’s line item veto. Their amendment would simply prohibit the ability of the governor to use a veto to increase spending. The rationale is simple. No single person in government should have the power to spend $87 million on their own authority.

That is entirely too much power for one person to have over his fellow citizens. Our state constitution explicitly grants the power to appropriate money for precisely the reason that spending decisions should be subject to a rigorous legislative process and not be the subject to the arbitrary whims of a solitary governor.

The process to amend the state’s constitution is, rightly, a lengthy one. The amendment must pass both houses of the legislature in two consecutive sessions. Then the amendment must pass a statewide referendum. Fortunately, the governor is not involved in the amendment process.

Wisconsin’s governor’s veto authority makes him or her too powerful. It was true for Governor Walker. It is true for Governor Evers. It will be true for the next governor. It will be true for the one after that unless we change it. Taking a small step to limit that veto authority is not a partisan issue. It is just a simple reform to make a better government.


0921, 17 July 2019


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