With a Republican-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor who wields the most powerful partial veto authority in the nation, Wisconsin budget watchers are considering how Gov. Tony Evers' could essentially rewrite the funding plan that hits his desk later this summer.
Considering the possibility that Evers could veto the entire budget, along with GOP legislative leadership looking at breaking the spending plan into two to circumvent the executive branch's line-item veto authority, it's time to review what Wisconsin governors can — and can't — do to the spending package passed by the Legislature.
What are the limits of the Wisconsin governor's line-item veto?
Wisconsin governors have had the power to use their partial veto authority on bills that appropriate money since 1930, when voters ratified a constitutional amendment strengthening the governor's veto pen. Before that, governors only had the option to reject bills containing appropriations in their entirety or sign them into law.
Under the provision, the governor has the power to strike entire words and individual digits, although single letters in a word are off-limits, a limitation Wisconsinites signed off on in a 1990 constitutional amendment.
Governors can also nix dollar amounts and replace them with a lower figure, a practice called "write-in vetoes." But they can't combine parts of two or more sentences to create a new one, the subject of a second constitutional amendment voters approved in 2008. And any provisions remaining following a partial veto have to relate to the same topics included in the vetoed parts.
Any of the language remaining after a governor issues a partial vetoes in sections of a bill must still pertain to the original topic. And the partial veto must result in "a complete and workable law," according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.
In order to override a partial veto, two-thirds of the members present in both houses of the Legislature must vote to overturn the language.
The last time the Legislature overrode a partial veto was in the 1985 session, when Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature as well as the governor's office.
Governors also have the authority to completely veto bills, including budgets. But since the state adopted its current budgeting process in 1931, a full budget has never been vetoed, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.
When have governors have used their partial veto authority?
Wisconsin governors aren't afraid to exercise their veto powers and since 1930, it's been done "with increasing regularity and imagination," according to a memo from the state's Legislative Council.
For example, former Gov. Scott Walker vetoed just shy of 100 provisions in the current budget, which the Republican Legislature sent him in fall 2017.
That included a provision surrounding school districts' raising of revenue limits for energy efficiency projects. Walker's original budget proposed ending the exemption, but instead lawmakers approved a one-year pause that wouldn't let districts adopt resolutions to use the exemption between Jan. 1, 2018 and Dec. 31, 2018.
The 2009-11 budget allowed school districts to exempt energy-efficiency expenses from revenue limits for projects that result in annual energy savings.
Walker, though, implemented a 1,000-year moratorium on the ability to raise revenue caps for those projects by using his veto pen to nix the "1" in "Dec. 31," the "2" in "2018" and the comma between the day and year. That changed the end date to "December 3018," effectively ending the adjustment.
Prior to him, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle employed the now outlawed "Frankenstein veto," in which he and governors before him were able to use their partial veto authority to combine whole sentences or parts of sentences, according to a new Legislative Reference Bureau publication.
For example in the 2005-07 budget, Doyle created a new sentence by stringing together 20 words out of a 752-word block, thus forming a new sentence transferring $427 million from the transportation fund to the general fund, which at the time covered school funding costs.
That practice ended when voters in 2008 adopted a constitutional amendment, a move made largely in response to Doyle's actions. While the amendment prohibits governors from using the partial veto to combine two or more sentences into one, the Legislative Reference Bureau notes governors are still able to nix entire sentences or words within them, including moves that would alter the meaning of the language.
What about splitting the budget into two bills?
Republican legislative leaders are considering breaking the budget into two separate bills, WisPolitics.com previously reported: one that would center on policy and another on fiscal measures. That would allow GOP lawmakers to get around Evers' line-item veto authority, which he can only use on legislation containing appropriations.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, last month told reporters it's "something that we are definitely looking at."
If that option was pursued, Evers would still have the option to veto both bills in their entirety.
GOP lawmakers have pointed out that in 2011, they split Act 10 into two separate bills — one on policy and one on appropriations — after Senate Democrats left the state in protest.
But a similar fiscal-policy split hasn't happened in a state budget process since at least 1931, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.