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Wisconsin Budget (copy)

Gov. Tony Evers after signing the budget in July. Evers made 78 partial vetoes to the state budget passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature before signing it.

A conservative legal group filed a lawsuit Wednesday in state court against Gov. Tony Evers and his administration to rein in what remains one of the most powerful veto pens in the nation.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is requesting the Wisconsin Supreme Court, dominated by conservative-backed justices, take up its case challenging the governor’s use of his partial veto authority, revisiting the court’s earlier precedent.

Even with previously imposed constitutional limits, Wisconsin’s governor has the ability to strike words, numbers and punctuation in budget bills, whether the language addresses spending or policy, in some cases transforming the Legislature’s intent.

“This case is not about politics, it’s not about personalities. It’s about an important principle, and that is the principle of separation of powers, which we believe is not a formal matter or historical artifact, but an important guarantor of liberty,” WILL president Rick Esenberg said at a Capitol news conference.

WILL argues Evers violated the state constitution by fundamentally altering the Legislature’s policies in the state budget, usurping a power not given to the governor in the state constitution. WILL contended Evers, in approving the state budget passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature with several partial vetoes, stripped the appropriation bill of integral language and therefore violated the principle in the state constitution that “legislative power shall be vested in the Senate and Assembly.”

“The issue in this case is whether the governor may use his partial veto authority to accept provisions passed by the legislature while stripping those provisions of all conditions with which the governor may disagree, regardless of how essential those conditions are to the overall law,” Esenberg wrote in his brief to the Supreme Court. “Permitting the governor to do so renders him a one-person legislature.”

Evers on Monday downplayed the lawsuit.

“It’s time for our state to move on,” he told reporters. “We had an election last November and apparently the Wisconsin Law and Liberty group doesn’t believe that that happened. I’m ready to move on. Apparently they’re not.”

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WILL is targeting four of the 78 partial vetoes Evers made to the state budget when he signed it in early July. The vetoes:

  • Directed $10 million originally meant for replacing school buses toward providing electric vehicle charging stations.
  • Altered funds for local governments meant to improve local roads so the money may be used for other transportation-related purposes, such as public transit.
  • Changed vehicle registration fees for trucks.
  • Altered the state’s tax and regulatory authority for vapor products, such as e-cigarettes.
  • The Legislature has the power to override those vetoes with a two-thirds majority in the Senate and Assembly, a difficult task given Republicans don’t command such majorities. Esenberg said a lawsuit is an appropriate means of addressing the issue because it would provide a constitutional fix that would prevent future governors — Democratic and Republican — from abusing their power.

Republicans earlier in July already proposed a constitutional amendment to bar Wisconsin governors from using their veto pen to increase spending in budget bills without legislative approval.

The proposal came after Evers during the budget managed to increase spending on K-12 aid to districts by $87 million with a creative veto. The move effectively “un-deleted” part of a number the Legislature had tried to remove and added the partial number to a separate number, resulting in a higher amount of per pupil aid going to each district.

The lawsuit WILL filed Wednesday does not address that issue because the increase in spending didn’t change the purpose of the appropriation, which is the central argument of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit comes after Wisconsin voters over recent decades have approved placing limits on the governor’s partial veto authority.

In 1990, they barred governors from using the so-called “Vanna White” veto to delete phrases, digits, letters and word fragments to create new words and phrases. In 2005, voters approved a constitutional amendment putting an end to a governor’s ability to use the veto to create new sentences by combining parts of two or more sentences in an appropriation bill, a power known as the “Frankenstein” veto.

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