The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday for two cases that could significantly restrict Governor Evers’ veto powers.
According to the Wisconsin constitution, the governor can issue a complete veto. But the governor can also partially veto specific parts of a bill. That comes with the authority to delete words and numbers, which can effectively change the meaning of a bill.
Both cases argue this veto power breaches the legal separation between the executive and legislative branch.
The first suit, filed last year by the conservative legal group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, challenges several partial vetoes the governor made in 2019. As part of those vetoes, Governor Evers re-allocated $10 million towards replacing school buses and put $75 million towards state-sponsored transportation programs.
In the filing, the plaintiffs argue that Governor Evers’ adjustments shifted the purpose and funding of several programs, effectively creating new legislation without input from the state’s legislature.
According to Richard Esenberg, President of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, the governor’s expansive veto powers give him too much power in the legislative process.
“The point isn’t whether we should have school buses or electric vehicle charging stations, it’s whether or not law should be made by playing what is, effectively, a game of scrabble,” he said. “It isn’t just Governor Evers who has done this, this is something that governors from both parties have been doing for a number of years.”
The second suit, filed by Wisconsin Small Business United, makes similar arguments against former Governor Scott Walker.
In 2017, then-Governor Walker issued two partial vetoes to the proposed state budget. By deleting two numbers, Walker extended the effective date of one piece of legislation by a millennium – from 2018 to 3018. He also revised legislation to postpone the start date for certain tax breaks for retailers – from 2018 to 2078.
During the hearings for the first case against Governor Evers, Justice Rebecca Dallet questioned whether or not a ruling by the court would violate the state’s separation of power.
“Isn’t it true that you’re really asking this court to make a new policy decision, given that the legislature has had the opportunity, over 85 years, to make the change that you’re advocating for?” She asked, “You’re asking us to make that choice as opposed to the legislature through the process of a constitutional amendment.”
Voters in Wisconsin have previously approved amendments limiting the Governor’s veto power. In 1990, voters approved a measure to prevent the governor from scratching out letters to form new words – the so-called, “Vana White Veto.”
And in 2008, voters approved another amendment preventing the Governor from moving words around a bill to form new sentences. Known as a “Frankenstein Veto,” the process allowed the governor to stitch together copy from various parts of a bill, creating entirely new policies.
When questioned by Justice Rebecca Bradley about Governor Evers’ veto powers, Assistant Attorney General Colin Roth, who is representing Evers in the case, argued that the people of Wisconsin have already approved the governor’s veto powers.
“Council, when did the people of Wisconsin give power to the governor to create law that was never considered or approved by the legislature?” Bradley asked.
“I think that decision was made in 1930 and then again in 1990 and 2008, when the Wisconsin people chose to give the governor a partial veto,” Roth responded.
It’s not the first political power struggle over which branch has the last word on a piece of legislation. Last fall, the republican-held assembly voted to allow themselves unlimited opportunities to override the Governor’s veto. Previously, Assembly attempts to override the Governor’s veto, which require two-thirds only of the members present, could only happen once.
It’s not clear when the court will make their decisions on the two cases.