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Veto power battle brews in Capitol

By Matt Pommer

How much power should Wisconsin governors have? That’s always an important question, but it’s even more important during difficult economic times.

One answer to that question is tied to veto power. In 1930, voters passed a constitutional amendment giving the governor the authority to veto — in part — any measure containing appropriations.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1978 created a broad interpretation of the veto power, giving the governor enormous power.

Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson used the power to create new words, striking letters from assorted words in the bill. A Democratic-controlled Legislature responded and, in 1990, voters approved a constitutional amendment to ban the practice.

The press dubbed it the “Vanna White amendment,” a reference to the woman who turns over letters on the Wheel of Fortune television program.

The issue surfaced again when the then Republican-controlled Legislature, irked at vetoes by Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle, passed another constitutional amendment. This one prohibited a governor from creating a new sentence by combining parts of two or more sentences in an appropriation bill.

Voters approved it in 2008, and the press dubbed it the “Frankenstein” constitutional amendment.

But the fight is not yet over. The current Legislature has given initial approval to a proposed amendment that would ban the use of the partial veto unless a governor rejects the entire section of spending bills.

Constitutional amendments must be approved by two consecutive Legislatures before being submitted to the voters for approval. The next step in this bill is legislative review next year. There is no gubernatorial role in the process of amending the state constitution.

Some proponents of the new measure contend it would effectively reduce the partial veto power to those of an “item” veto used by governors in most other states. But there are suggestions the amendment might surprise some.

Fred Wade, a Madison private attorney and constitutional watchdog, notes that all of the actual spending provisions in the state’s biennial budget bill are contained in one section. If that practice were to continue, a governor only could strike down all of the actual spending provision.

Perhaps the press would then call it the “surprise” amendment. Clearly, it would reduce the power of the governor.

Before the “Vanna White” and “Frankenstein” amendments, Wisconsin governors were the most powerful in the nation. Former Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus correctly said the Legislature was a “97-pound weakling.”

The “in part” power was approved by voters in 1930 after extended budget battles in the late 1920s. Those battles were similar to those being experienced now in many other states.

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

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