Govs Enjoy Quirky Veto Power

By: - April 24, 2007 12:00 am

Ever hear of the “Frankenstein” veto? How about the “Vanna White” veto? Every state governor has the power to overrule actions by his or her legislature through a “veto” – the word is Latin for “I forbid” – but some governors can do more than simply say no.

The veto power enjoyed by Wisconsin’s governor is broader than most. That state’s top elected official can rewrite parts of a bill, reduce the amount of spending it authorizes or appropriates, and even strike out objectionable provisions. In 2005, Democrat Jim Doyle used the power to strike out 752 words from a budget bill in order to cobble together a 20-word sentence that diverted million from transportation to education.

Enraged lawmakers dubbed Doyle’s action a “Frankenstein” veto, but they were unable to slay the monster by mustering the two-thirds majority required by the state constitution to override a gubernatorial veto.

The legislators are now talking about asking Wisconsin voters to ban such a creative use of the veto in the future. The voters last got involved in 1990 when they prohibited state leaders from deleting individual alphabetic letters and numerical characters in a bill to change the intent of the legislation.

That practice was known as the “Vanna White” veto, immortalizing the “Wheel of Fortune” hostess who flipped letters and numbers in a TV game show.

At its core, veto power enables governors – and the president of the United States in the federal system – to block a legislative action. But it’s not the last word. Legislators can override a veto by assembling a supermajority, usually three-fifths or two-thirds.

The vast majority of governors (43) have “line-item” veto power over spending bills. Not only can they reject an entire bill, they also can strike out individual items. A dozen also can reduce the amount of money the legislature wants to spend on a project by exercising “reduction” veto power. And eight governors have the option of rewriting bills and sending them back to the legislature, so-called “amendatory” veto power.

Wisconsin’s quirky veto is a hybrid of the amendatory veto, reduction veto and the line-item veto. Six states – Alabama, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey and Virginia – grant their governors the power of the amendatory veto. That power applies to all types of bills, not just spending measures. (In addition, South Dakota’s governor can amend bills during session, Wisconsin’s can re-write spending bills.)

Those types of vetoes often stir up controversy. This month, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) added a politically explosive amendment giving fishermen the right to access private streams by way of public bridges to a mundane bridge-repair bill. Lawmakers haven’t voted on Schweitzer’s proposal yet. And in March, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) used an amendment to force lawmakers to vote on whether to institute a statewide smoking ban, an idea the General Assembly rejected.

But even the straight thumbs-down veto power that all governors wield packs a powerful punch.

Rookie Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) flexed his muscles on his first day in office Jan. 8, vetoing a bill his predecessor assumed was heading for the statute books. His rejection of a Republican initiative to curb consumer-fraud lawsuits set the tone for his new administration and set off a legal scuffle that’s already reached the state Supreme Court.

In Colorado, freshman Gov. Bill Ritter (D) alienated the labor wing of his party by striking down a hastily approved measure to make it easier to organize unions. That led to some national labor leaders demanding that Democrats move their 2008 national convention out of Denver.

And lawmakers in Texas are rallying behind a constitutional amendment to weaken their governor’s veto. They’re concerned with Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s use of executive power, including his veto of the entire education budget in 2005 after the legislature adjourned. Their proposal would allow the Legislature to reconvene to overturn a veto.

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