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Partial veto power under fire in Wis.

By Matt Pommer

Wisconsin governors are the most powerful in the nation, thanks to a constitutional provision that lets them veto “in part” language in appropriation bills.

Pending in the Legislature is a constitutional amendment that would rebalance the powers of spending and lawmaking by requiring future governors veto a section of an appropriation bill in its entirety.

Fred Wade, an attorney in private practice in Madison, is among the leading champions of curbing the powers of the governor’s office.

“For nearly 35 years, we have accepted the notion that governors may use the partial veto power to create laws that the Legislature did not approve,” Wade said. “And we have done so, despite the fact that the Wisconsin Constitution still vests the ‘legislative power’ in the Senate and Assembly.”

The constitution makes clear governors are to “judge” what the Legislature has done, without having any legislative power of their own, Wade said.

The “in part” provision was added three years after the 1927 Legislature added authorization for several unrelated spending items in a school appropriation bill.

The governor fought back, vetoing the entire bill and leading to two special sessions of the Legislature.

The use of the power took off in the 1970s. It probably reached its peak in Republican Tommy Thompson’s first term when Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature.

Thompson struck letters to make new words in the state budget bill. The actions were labeled “Vanna White vetoes,” a reference to the hostess of the Wheel of Fortune TV show. The constitution was amended in 1990 to bar vetoing letters to make new words.

Wade said that amendment did not completely solve the problem. He cited vetoes made in 1999 by Thompson and in 2005 by Democrat Jim Doyle.

“Gov. Thompson used vetoes of selected digits with a bills section to repeal the property tax rent credit. The veto cost income taxpayers $234 million in taxes that the Legislature did not authorize,” Wade told a legislative hearing on the proposed amendment.

Doyle used his partial veto power to convert a proposed reduction in highway bonding to create a $1 billion bonding authority by striking a dollar sign and certain digits as the amendment was combined with existing law, according to Wade.

Former Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus, D-Dun Prairie, has described the Legislature as the “97-pound weakling,” a reference to the Charles Atlas bodybuilding advertisements of an earlier age.

Whether you think the broad veto power should be retained often turns on whether the governor is a member of the political party that you support.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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