GOP starts push to curb Wisconsin governor's veto powers

October 16, 2019

MADISON Wisconsin Republicans continued their push Tuesday to weaken Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' powers, holding a hearing on a constitutional amendment prohibiting him from using his veto pen to increase spending.

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.

Wisconsin Supreme Court agrees to hear veto challenge

MADISON, Wis. The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to hear a case brought by a conservative law firm seeking to dramatically scale back the ability of governors to change the intent of legislators through partial budget vetoes.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty brought the case in July after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers made 78 partial vetoes to the state budget passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The Supreme Court, which is controlled 5-2 by conservatives, agreed to take the case as requested, skipping the usual process of lawsuits working their way up from lower courts first.

The case seeks to reverse more than four decades of precedent upholding the governor's broad veto power. The lawsuit specifically seeks to overturn four of Evers' 78 partial vetoes, arguing that he improperly and unlawfully used his broad constitutional powers to create new laws never approved by the Legislature.

The court will hear oral arguments in the coming months and likely issue a decision in the summer.

"Governor Evers abused his partial veto to create new laws out of whole cloth," said Rick Esenberg, president of the group bringing the lawsuit. "The people of Wisconsin never intended the check on legislative power the governors' veto represents to permit the governor to legislate on his own. We are pleased the court agreed that Governor Evers' recent use of the partial veto warrants judicial review."

Evers' spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback, didn't address the state Supreme Court's decision to take the case directly. She defended the vetoes, however, saying they "were entirely consistent with the Wisconsin Constitution, decades of decisions by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and vetoes by prior governors."

Evers shrugged off the lawsuit when it was filed as an attempt to re-fight old political battles.

The governor's veto powers are spelled out in the Wisconsin Constitution. The lawsuit does not challenge those powers, but instead how Evers used them, arguing that he violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches by creating new laws never intended by the Legislature.

Republican lawmakers are pushing a constitutional amendment, which voters would have to approve, that would prohibit governors from increasing funding through a partial veto, as Evers did this year. A Senate committee held a hearing on that measure this week.

Wisconsin governors, both Republican and Democratic, have long used the broad partial veto power to reshape the state budget. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker issued 98 partial vetoes in his last budget in 2017 and 104 in the one before that. Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson holds the record with 457 partial vetoes in 1991.

Esenberg said at the time the lawsuit was filed that it wasn't targeting Evers, but rather addressing an "important principle" and that the group just didn't get around to challenging it sooner.

Lawmakers and voters have been attempting to scale back the governor's veto power almost since it was created in 1930. Since 1935, there have been 25 constitutional amendments proposed to limit the governor's power.

Complaint could make up to 234K Wisconsin voters ineligible

MADISON, Wis. More than a quarter-million voters in Wisconsin identified as having moved could be made ineligible to vote before next year's presidential primary election if a complaint filed Wednesday by a conservative law firm is successful.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty argues that the state Elections Commission broke the law when it decided to wait up to two years, rather than 30 days, to make ineligible voters who may have moved. The complaint asks for that decision to be immediately revoked, which could lead to as many as 234,000 voters losing their eligibility until they can confirm their addresses or re-register.

The outcome could affect how many voters are able to cast ballots in both the April presidential primary and November 2020 general election in Wisconsin, a key swing state that both sides are targeting. President Donald Trump narrowly won the state by less than 23,000 votes in 2016.

The concern from liberals is that younger and lower income voters who are more likely to vote Democratic are also more likely to be flagged as movers. The result, they fear, is that more Democrats would be made ineligible than Republicans, making it more difficult for them to vote.

The commission said in a statement that it is confident it is complying with the law.

State law requires Wisconsin to join the multi-state Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, but it does not specify how the list of voters is to be maintained, said Meagan Wolfe, the Election Commission's executive director. Wolfe told reporters that she hadn't reviewed the complaint, but that she disagreed with its claim that state law requires the commission to make voters ineligible after 30 days.

Last week, the commission mailed notices to 234,000 voters identified as potentially having moved. They had been flagged by ERIC based on a review of documents from sources such as the Post Office and Division of Motor Vehicles that indicated the person may have moved.

Voters who do not respond to the postcard asking them to confirm their address will be flagged as movers. But instead of being made ineligible to vote 30 days after the mailing, they will have up to two years to confirm their addresses, based on a June vote by the commission.

The conservative group contends in its complaint that the two-year grace period conflicts with a state law that requires such voters to be made ineligible after 30 days. It contends that maintaining an accurate list of who is registered to vote in Wisconsin is a matter of election security.

Under the commission's decision, voters flagged as movers will not be made ineligible ahead of the February primary election for the state Supreme Court race and numerous local offices. It will also mean they will remain eligible for the April presidential primary and spring general election in which a Supreme Court justice will be elected.

Voters who are made inactive will be able to re-register at the polls on election day if they have the required form of ID and proof of residence.

Analiese Eicher, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Institute, which successfully sued to block limits on voting, said this was an attempt to "bully the Elections Commission into a backdoor voter roll purge."

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed the complaint on behalf of three voters. It warns that if the commission doesn't take immediate action, it will file a lawsuit. Rick Esenberg, the group's president, said in a statement that the commission doesn't have the authority to "invent or amend policy contrary to state law."

Commission staff said in a March memo that the commission had the authority to delay making the voters ineligible beyond 30 days because another state law gives it the ability to create rules maintaining the voter registration list. Staff said in the memo that since no voter would be removed until after the April 2021 election under its policy, there would be time to receive feedback from the Legislature about whether a law change was necessary.

The complaint filed Wednesday, and possible lawsuit, would force a resolution of that question.

Removing voters who may have moved was an issue in 2017 after the commission mailed post cards to 343,000 potential movers and more than 335,000 who did not respond were made ineligible. That led to complaints from voters and election officials, resulting in creation of a supplemental voter list for elections last year. Anyone on that list who came to the polls to vote and affirmed they had not moved were able to vote without having to re-register.

There are about 3.3 million registered voters in Wisconsin out of about 4.5 million people of voting age.

Republican Nicholson won't run for Congress, eyeing 2022

MADISON Republican Kevin Nicholson is passing on a chance to run for Congress next year and instead is laying the groundwork for a statewide run for either governor or U.S. Senate in 2022.

Nicholson on Tuesday endorsed fellow Republican Scott Fitzgerald in the 5th Congressional District race. Fitzgerald is currently the state Senate majority leader and the only announced Republican candidate for the race in the deeply conservative district that covers affluent Milwaukee suburbs.

Nicholson ran for U.S. Senate last year but lost in the primary. He says he's focused on growing the conservative movement in Wisconsin and preparing for a statewide race in three years.

Fitzgerald is vying to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. Several other Republicans are still weighing a bid. Tom Palzewicz is the only announced Democratic candidate.


Associated Press