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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Like monster, ‘Frankenstein’ veto inspires fear in some

A committee will decide Wednesday if the state Senate should consider a measure to limit the power of the Wisconsin governor’s budget veto pen — currently one of the most powerful in the nation.

Most states, including Wisconsin, grant their governors a line-item veto, in which governors may strike individual items from a piece of legislation. Wisconsin's "partial veto" is uniquely broad in allowing the governor to also strike paragraphs, sentences, words, numbers and symbols from the text of a budget bill, and then piecing the remaining fragments together to effectively create new legislation.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle employed this partial veto last month when he signed the 2007-09 state budget, raising the property tax from 2 percent to 3.86 percent.


"It really makes a mockery of the legislative budget process," Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, said.

Harsdorf authored the joint resolution currently under consideration by the Senate Ethics Reform and Government Operations committee, which would amend the state Constitution to prohibit Wisconsin governors from combining multiple sentences in budget bills by deleting words. She dubbed this power the "Frankenstein" veto in 2005, when Doyle used it to turn a 752-word item into 20 words, moving $427 million from the state transportation fund into the hands of the secretary of the Department of Administration.

Harsdorf said while the money was directed to funding public schools, future governors may use the same veto power differently.

"It's not a matter of whether you agree with the end result — it's about the process," Harsdorf said. "You might like what the action is one time, and you may not the other time."

Wisconsin's partial veto dates back to 1930. University of Wisconsin political science professor Dennis Dresang said the power was originally intended to make up for the fact that states, unlike the federal government, cannot borrow money in times of financial hardship.

"Most states, including Wisconsin, have given their governors the power to partially veto bills that have taxing and spending implications so the governor can balance the budget," Dresang said.

But according to Dresang, creative use of the partial veto has been a "tradition" among Wisconsin governors of both parties since the 1970s.

In 1975, for example, the Legislature passed a budget saying the state would fund at least 50 percent of the tourism advertising budget for Wisconsin. By striking one word — "not" — Democratic Gov. Patrick Lucey turned that 50 percent minimum into a 50 percent maximum.

And in 1983, Democratic Gov. Anthony S. Earl was the first to strike individual letters to change the meanings of words, a now-prohibited power dubbed the "Vanna White" veto.

This tactic was also employed by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who Dresang said may have been the most creative in his use of Wisconsin's gubernatorial veto power.

As a result, Dresang said the "Vanna White" veto power was prohibited in 1990, adding the charge against gubernatorial veto powers has often been noticeably partisan.

"In fairness, if it's Republicans who are yelling now, it was Democrats who were yelling before," Dresang said.

Harsdorf said she supports the power of the governor to cross out numbers and replace them with smaller ones, but doesn't want governors to change the meaning of laws set by the Legislature.

"I don't believe [the partial veto] was ever intended to be used by a governor to write laws that haven't passed the Legislature, but rather to let them approve a portion of what the Legislature has approved," Harsdorf said. "It's important that we look at what authority we give the governor, whoever it is, Democrat or Republican or whatever party."

But even the limits Harsdorf and other legislators want to impose may not be enough to prevent undesired gubernatorial vetoes, Dresang pointed out.

"It's complicated," Dresang said. "If you give a governor any kind of a partial veto, there's going to be a way for the governor to exercise that veto in such a way that the Legislature regards as inappropriate or 'too creative.' And in a sense you're just going to have to kind of suck it up."

If the amendment passes the Senate, it will then go to the voters for ratification.

The proposed amendment is now in its second trip through the state Legislature. It passed both houses last session, passed the Assembly again earlier this year, and now awaits the judgment of the Senate, starting at Wednesday’s executive session.

Senate President Fred Risser, D-Madison, said he expects the committee will decide to send the amendment to the Senate floor for a vote, and it could be on a ballot for voters to ratify as soon as the primary election next April. Because the proposal is an amendment to the state Constitution, the governor does not have the power to veto it.

Doyle's office did not returned phone calls seeking comment as of press time.

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