By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A conservative law firm on Wednesday asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to scale back the ability of governors to change the intent of lawmakers through partial budget vetoes — a change that would reverse more than four decades of precedent.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of three taxpayers by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, is the most aggressive challenge yet to the 78 partial vetoes that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers made to the state budget that the Republican-controlled Legislature had approved in June.
A favorable ruling would have consequences far beyond the current budget and governor, limiting partial vetoes well into the future.
“The governor’s veto power has been used creatively, and sometimes absurdly, by governors of both parties,” said Rick Esenberg, the president of WILL. “But the partial veto cannot act as a magic wand, creating new laws out of whole cloth.”
The lawsuit seeks to overturn four of Evers’ partial vetoes, arguing that he improperly and unlawfully used his broad constitutional powers to create new laws never approved by the Legislature. The lawsuit asks the Supreme Court, controlled 5-2 by conservatives, to overturn a 1978 ruling in a similar case that found the governor could enact new policy through his partial veto.
It is asking the state’s high court to immediately take the case, speeding up a decision by skipping the lower courts. Republicans who control the Legislature could vote to override the Evers vetoes, but they have not announced any plans to do so. Any override would require Democratic support.
The governor’s veto powers are spelled out in the Wisconsin Constitution. The lawsuit does not challenge those powers, but instead how Evers used them in the budget, arguing that he violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches by enacting new laws never intended by the Legislature.
The lawsuit seeks to overturn four of Evers’ vetoes.
In one, Evers used his veto to alter a grant program meant to replace old school buses. Evers instead managed to provide as much as $10 million for charging stations for electrical vehicles. In another, Evers allowed $75 million to be used for any type of transportation program, rather than just local roads, as the Legislature had wanted.
In a third, Evers eliminated provisions that would have established a standard $100 truck-registration fee. In the fourth, Evers used his veto in an attempt to ensure a tax on vaping products would apply to any device containing fluid and to vapor fluid sold separately.
In every instance, the lawsuit alleges, Evers illegally expanded the scope of what the Legislature intended.
Wisconsin governors, both Republican and Democratic, have long used the broad partial veto power to reshape the state budget. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker issued 98 partial vetoes in his last budget in 2017 and 104 in the one before that. Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson holds the record with 457 partial vetoes in 1991.
Lawmakers and voters have been attempting to scale back the governor’s veto power almost since it was created in 1930. Since 1935, there have been 25 constitutional amendments proposed to limit the governor’s power.
In 1990, voters approved an amendment to disallow creating new words in a budget bill by striking out individual letters. In 2008, voters ended what was known as the Frankenstein veto by prohibiting the governor from making a new sentence by combining parts of two or more sentences.
An amendment proposed this year by Republicans following Evers’ vetoes would prohibit governors from increasing funding through a partial veto.