We trust the executive branch of our government with a tremendous amount of power but, far too often, that power is abused. Americans feel the encroachment of executive power in the form of excessive regulation, endless red tape, and abusive bureaucrats. Here in Wisconsin, we also can feel the overreach by the state’s chief executive in our pocketbooks.
That’s what taxpayers felt over the summer when Gov. Tony Evers used his powerful line-item veto to creatively increase spending in the 2019-21 budget by $85 million with a few strokes of his pen. This is contrary to the intent of the line-item veto and violates the principle that the Legislature holds the power to determine how taxpayer money is spent.
The line-item veto power that Wisconsin’s governor wields is the most powerful veto pen of any governor in the country. The Legislature gave this authority to the governor back in 1930, and Evers isn’t the first to try using it to expand his own power. Governors have invented new ways to misuse their veto power several times—and each time, the Legislature and Wisconsin people stood up and said “that’s too far.”
In 1983, Gov. Tony Earl created the “Vanna White veto” when he used his line-item veto to strike out certain letters to create entirely new words. Later, during Gov. Tommy Thompson’s administration, the Legislature moved to ban this tactic through a constitutional amendment. Then, Gov. Jim Doyle used the “Frankenstein veto” to veto out some words and combine unrelated sentences to create entirely new policy. This was also banned via constitutional amendment in 2008.
We call Evers’ new veto trick the “Zombie veto” because it can bring spending proposals that died in the Legislature back to life with nothing more than the stroke of the governor’s pen. That’s why my colleagues, Sen. Dave Craig and Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, have proposed a constitutional amendment to prevent the veto from being used to increase spending.
“This unilateral abuse of power taken by the executive branch cannot go unchecked by the Legislature without seriously damaging the separation of powers doctrine in Wisconsin,” they wrote.
The Craig-Kuglitsch amendment passed the state Senate on Tuesday on a party line, 19-14 vote.
During floor debate over the amendment, one of my Democratic colleagues said the proposal was, “a little dramatic” and “a little power-hungry.”
I respectfully disagree. There is nothing dramatic about limiting the powers of the executive branch—in fact, that’s a necessary function of checks and balances. Once again, Congress could take a cue from Wisconsin.
The amendment now moves on to the Assembly. Then, it will have to pass a second consecutive session of the Legislature and move on to a public referendum. Fortunately, Wisconsin voters approved both previous efforts to limit the governor’s veto power.
Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents the 5th Senate District.