July 17, 2019
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
To say that Governor Evers is inventing new ways to spend money isn’t just a figure of speech anymore. In the most ludicrous expansion of line-item veto power in recent memory, he circumvented longstanding constitutional norms and added $86 million in K-12 education spending to Wisconsin’s biennial budget.
The Republican-led state Legislature authorized per-pupil spending of “…$654 in the 2018−19 school year, by $679 in the subsequent school year, and by $704 in each school year thereafter.”
However, Evers used his line-item veto to change the language so that it authorized per-pupil spending of “…$654 in the 2018−19 school year, by $679 in the subsequent school year, and by $704$63 in each school year thereafter.”
The new sentence thus allows “…$654 in the 2018−19 school year, by $679 and $63 in each school year thereafter.” Adding the $679 and $63 together for a per-year total of $742 per pupil means that the final budget will spend $101 more than the Legislature authorized—a total of approximately $86.5 million per year.
This is a clear encroachment on legislative spending authority as well a violation of both the obvious intent of the Wisconsin constitutional amendment creating the partial veto and the plain meaning of the word “veto” itself.
Veto, Latin for “I forbid,” is commonly defined as “the constitutional right to reject a decision or proposal made by a law-making body.” In an appropriations bill such as a state budget, this is the governor’s authority to “forbid” an act of the Legislature from taking effect. This is most certainly not, as Evers seems to believe, a governor’s ability to create a new act (i.e. spending an amount of money not authorized by the state Legislature). Doing so usurps the constitutional authority from the Legislature.
The Legislature anticipated this sort of overreach when it first began debate on an expansion of veto power in 1925, when Senator H.B. Daggett introduced a proposed amendment that would allow the governor only to “disapprove or reduce items or parts of items in any bill appropriating money.”
This language was ultimately rejected in the final constitutional amendment voters approved in 1930, but it illustrates the deep concern for an imperial executive branch that could use its newfound power to spend money that was never legislatively approved.
Eighty-nine years later, the Legislature is similarly nervous; and Republican Representative Mike Kuglistch and Senator Dave Craig have introduced a constitutional amendment preventing the use of a veto to spend additional money.
“This unilateral abuse of power taken by the executive branch cannot go unchecked by the Legislature without seriously damaging the separation of powers doctrine in Wisconsin,” they wrote, noting that both Republican and Democratic governors have wrongly used the partial veto to increase spending.
Nonetheless, this was immediately decried as yet another attempt by a Republican Legislature to limit the power of a Democratic governor.
“Republicans are still in election denial and continue to look for ways to undermine our democratically elected governor every step of the way,” State Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, while Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz rather laughably called it “an attack on the institution of democracy.”
A more sober (and sane) interpretation of the move is that it is in keeping with a longstanding bipartisan tradition of reining in gubernatorial overreach.
In 1983, Democratic Governor Tony Earl created what became known as the “Vanna White veto” by striking individual letters to form entirely new words. When the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the use of this veto by Earl’s Republican successor, Tommy Thompson, the Democrat-controlled Legislature moved to amend the Constitution to prohibit the Vanna White veto.
Fifteen years after voters approved that amendment in 1990, the Republican-controlled Legislature moved to curb Democratic Governor Jim Doyle’s use of the so-called “Frankenstein veto,” in which the governor could use his line-item veto to create a new sentence by combining parts of other sentences (even if they were wholly unrelated). The proposed amendment had broad bipartisan support, and voters approved it in 2008.
Eleven years later, Senator Craig and Representative Kuglitsch are continuing decades of legislative pushback against executive overreach by launching a similar move against a similar abuse of partial veto power.
Given that their proposed amendment must pass both houses of the Legislature in consecutive legislatures and then be approved by voters in the next general election, the earliest it could take effect is 2022—the very end of Governor Evers’ term (and possibly his governorship)—this is clearly not an attack on Evers, but rather the abuse of partial veto power in which he has engaged.
Evers and his recent successors—Republicans and Democrats alike, but mostly Democrats—have quite literally invented new ways to spend money by dramatically expanding their line-item veto and unconstitutionally usurping legislative authority from the state Legislature.
It’s well past time to once again rein in an imperial executive branch.