Wisconsin governor’s 400-year veto angers opponents in state with long history of creative cuts

Wisconsin governors have the most expansive partial veto power in the country because, unlike in other states, they can strike nearly any part of a budget bill

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers addresses a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers during the governor's State of the State speech at the state Capitol Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Madison, Wis.andy manis (AP)

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ partial veto that attempts to lock in a school funding increase for 400 years drew outrage and surprise from his political opponents, but it’s just the latest creative cut in a state that’s home to the most powerful partial gubernatorial veto in the country.

“Everybody will shout and scream,” said former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, “but he’s got ‘em.”

Wisconsin governors have the most expansive partial veto power in the country because, unlike in other states, they can strike nearly any part of a budget bill. That includes wiping out numbers, punctuation and words in spending bills to sometimes create new law that wasn’t the intention of the Legislature.

That’s exactly what Evers, a Democrat, did on Wednesday with a two-year state budget passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Legislature had language in the budget increasing the per pupil spending authority for K-12 public schools by $325 in the 2023-24 and 2024-25 school years. Evers, a former state education secretary and public school teacher and administrator before that, vetoed the “20″ and the hyphen to make the end date 2425.

The change means that until a future Legislature and governor undo it, the amount schools can spend through a combination of property taxes and state aid will increase by $325 annually until 2425. That’s farther in the future — 402 years — than the United States has been a country — 247 years.

“It’s creative for sure,” said Bill McCoshen, a lobbyist who previously worked under former Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Creative, but not unprecedented.

Reshaping state budgets through the partial veto is a longstanding act of gamesmanship in Wisconsin between the governor and Legislature, as lawmakers try to craft bills in a way that are largely immune from creative vetoes. Vetoes, even the most outlandish, are almost never overridden because it takes a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to do it.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, during a Thursday interview on WISN-AM, vowed to try, though he admitted it would be difficult.

Vos called Evers’ 400-year veto “an unprecedented brand-new way to screw the taxpayer ... that was never imagined by a previous governor and certainly wouldn’t by anybody who thinks there is a fair process in Wisconsin.”

Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2017 used his veto power to extend the deadline of a state program program from 2018 to 3018. That came to be known as the “thousand-year veto.” He also delayed the start date of another program by 60 years.

The Republican Thompson was known for his use of the “Vanna White” veto, named for the co-host of Wheel of Fortune who flips letters to reveal word phrases. Thompson holds the record for the most partial vetoes by any governor in a single year — 457 in 1991. Evers this year made 51.

Thompson said he would never fault a governor for using their partial veto power.

“People are saying ‘How can he do this?’” Thompson said of the Evers veto. “Well, he did it.”

Wisconsin’s partial veto is uniquely powerful because it allows the governor to change the intent of the Legislature, just as Evers did, said Kristoffer Shields, director of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University. Shields said he plans to cite the latest Evers veto when teaching about executive power.

“Many people in Wisconsin, I suspect, are surprised that the governor can do this,” Shields said. “And now that we know he can do this, that can lead to changes.”

Wisconsin’s partial veto power was created by a 1930 constitutional amendment, but it’s been weakened over the years, including in reaction to vetoes made by Thompson and Doyle.

Voters adopted a constitutional amendments in 1990 and 2008 that took away the ability to strike individual letters to make new words — the “Vanna White” veto — and eliminated the power to eliminate words and numbers in two or more sentences to create a new sentence — the “Frankenstein” veto. Numerous court decisions have also narrowed the veto power.

Rick Esenberg, director of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said he expected there to be a legal challenge to Evers’ 400-year veto.

“This is just a ridiculous way to make law,” Esenberg said.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with Esenberg’s group and undid three of Evers’ partial vetoes in 2020, but a majority of justices did not issue clear guidance on what was allowed. Two justices did say that partial vetoes can’t be used to create new policies. In August, the court flips from conservative to liberal control. That further clouds how it may rule on veto power, an issue that over the decades has drawn bipartisan support and criticism.

Even as questions about the legality of the veto swirl, conservatives are trying to benefit politically by arguing that the ever-increasing spending authority Evers enacted will open the door to higher property taxes.

“The veto would allow property taxes to skyrocket over the next 400 years,” Republican Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August said in a statement. “Taxpayers need to remember this when getting their tax bills this December.”

But Doyle, the former Democratic governor who issued nearly 400 partial vetoes over eight years, praised Evers for effectively restoring an automatic increase in school spending authority that had been in place starting in the 1990s. Doyle’s successor, Walker, and the GOP-controlled Legislature removed it.

“What Governor Evers did was masterful and really important and something that everybody should have expected him to do,” Doyle said. “I’m sure they’re kicking themselves over why they didn’t they see this little number thing.”

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