GOP legislators have been working since Evers won election last November to reduce the governor’s authority. They passed a host of laws during a December lame-duck session prohibiting Evers from pulling the state out of lawsuits without legislators’ permission, a tactic designed to prevent him from withdrawing Wisconsin from a multistate action challenging the Affordable Care Act. Evers still managed to withdraw from the lawsuit after a judge temporarily put the laws on hold this spring, but the lame-duck session set the tone for the icy relationship that has developed between the governor and Republicans over the last year.
Evers enraged the GOP in July when he used his partial veto powers to rewrite the state budget and give public schools $65 million more than Republican legislators allocated. Republicans responded within days by introducing an amendment to the state constitution that would bar the governor from using his or her veto powers to increase spending in any bill.
The constitution currently gives the governor among the strongest veto powers in the nation. He can strike words, numbers and punctuation in spending bills, shifting money toward initiatives he supports while starving opponents’ projects of funding.
Constitutional amendments must pass consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide referendum before they can take effect. The state Senate’s government oversight committee began that process with Tuesday’s hearing.
The amendment’s chief Senate author, Republican Dave Craig, told the committee that Evers’ decision to boost school funding exceeded his authority and trampled on the Legislature’s power of the purse.
He argued that Wisconsin residents have been trying to scale back the governor’s veto powers for decades. He pointed to a constitutional amendment in 2008 that ended the so-called Frankenstein veto, forbidding the governor from deleting and stitching words together to form new sentences. And he cited a 1990 amendment that ended the so-called Vanna White veto, in which the governor deleted individual letters and numbers.
The spending amendment “would shield taxpayers from further unauthorized spending in the future,” Craig said.
Sens. Fred Risser and Lena Taylor, the committee’s two Democrats, maintained the amendment isn’t necessary since legislators presently can try to override vetoes they dislike.
Such a move requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the Senate and Assembly. Republicans are three votes short of that mark in the Assembly and three votes shy in the Senate this session. Craig said the override route doesn’t change the reality that Evers usurped the Legislature’s spending authority.
Taylor went on to argue that the state elected Evers to act as a check on Republicans and she hasn’t heard anyone complaining about Evers giving schools more money. Craig countered that he has heard from constituents that Evers went too far.
Risser said he’s worried about situations where vindictive lawmakers cut salaries of state employees that have angered them. If the governor vetoes the cut, he or she could be seen as authorizing a spending increase, Risser said. Craig agreed that the governor would be violating the prohibition but said lawmakers have the right to make policy decisions.
Anna Henning, the committee’s attorney, said the situation Risser described is murky but that the governor could argue that vetoing spending cuts simply restores the status quo.
The hearing lasted only about an hour. Only Risser and Taylor spoke against the amendment.
Craig, who doubles as the oversight committee chairman, said he expects the panel will vote on the amendment sometime next week. Approval would clear the way for a full Senate vote.
Evers spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback, said it’s unfortunate that Republicans are upset that the governor gave schools more money and that they should stop seeking political retribution for an election that happened almost a year ago.
Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1