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Wisconsin Budget

Gov. Tony Evers displays the state budget he signed last week. Evers made 78 partial vetoes to the spending plan that was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers didn’t have to veto the entire state budget to prove yet again the sweeping powers afforded to Wisconsin governors to bend biennial spending bills to their liking.

Evers instead found sometimes creative ways to wield his powerful veto pen 78 times, including in one case spending $87 million more on K-12 school district aid than the Republican-controlled Legislature intended.

The move was reminiscent of former Gov. Jim Doyle stitching together numbers and words to create a new sentence in the 2005 budget that spent $330 million more than the Legislature intended on K-12 education. In 2008, voters abolished what became known as the “Frankenstein veto” via constitutional amendment.

The governor’s ability to raise $87 million with a few strokes of a pen has both critics and good-government advocates again questioning whether such authority is appropriate.

“It’s one thing to allow the governor to write down or block spending through the use of the line-item vetoes,” said Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. “It’s quite another thing to allow the governor to appropriate money. I don’t think that’s what our state Constitution was intended to do.”

Esenberg said the issue is one state courts should reconsider, although it’s unlikely. If they don’t, he said lawmakers should consider bringing a constitutional amendment before the voters limiting governors from increasing appropriations in spending bills. Wisconsin courts have typically allowed the governor broad powers under partial veto authority, according to a nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau memo.

Jay Heck, executive director of the liberal group Common Cause in Wisconsin, said the Evers veto is a reminder that power in Wisconsin state government is concentrated in the hands of too few.

“He still has the greatest veto authority in the nation,” Heck said. “It would be wise to take a look at that, see if it could be brought down to scale.”

Evers defended the way he used the veto talking to reporters Wednesday.

“I think we used every possible creative way to veto this budget so that it reflects the people’s budget,” Evers said.

Constitutional limits

Even with constitutional limits imposed by voters over the past several decades, Wisconsin governors still have among the strongest powers over appropriation bills in the country, with the ability to strike words, numbers and punctuation in both appropriation and non-appropriation text in bills that determine how money is spent.

Governors may also strike appropriation amounts and write down an entirely new, lower amount. Most other states allow governors only to strike or reduce appropriations in bills spending money.

According to the Legislative Reference Bureau, governors have never vetoed current law included within a budget document. In addition, the words that remain in a bill after partial vetoes must relate to the part that was vetoed. The veto must also result in a “complete and workable law.”

Still, the use of partial veto authority over the budget has declined over the past two decades. Evers’ 78 partial vetoes were fewer than former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s high of 104 partial vetoes in the 2015-17 budget, and an all-time high of 457 in 1991 under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Thompson, who had used the so-called “Vanna White” veto to delete phrases, digits, letters and word fragments to create new words and phrases before it was prohibited by constitutional amendment in 1990, defended the Wisconsin governor’s broad use of veto authority. But he agreed with Esenberg that Evers increasing appropriations is a concern.

Thompson said he used vetoes to reduce expenditures, not increase them, and the increase in spending under Democratic governors represents a divide with Republicans.

“I used the veto more than any governor,” Thompson said. “I’m the last one that should be talking about limiting the governor’s veto. (But) I think that there should be limitations on increases in spending.”

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All in the numbers

The way Evers was able to spend an extra $87 million on a type of K-12 aid given to districts for each student was another creative use of the veto. He was able to resurrect part of a number the Legislature had deleted, or what you might call a “zombie veto.”

Evers used his partial veto authority to provide $742 per pupil each year, instead of $679 in the first year and $704 in each subsequent year under the GOP-authored budget. The Legislature had tried to delete the previously identified continuing aid amount of $630, but Evers “un-deleted” the figure “$63.” The final language thus provided $679 and $63 to result in $742, a larger amount, costing the state an additional $87 million.

Combined with other vetoes that reduced spending, Evers’ net spending increase on K-12 education was about $65 million.

Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said he was generally pleased with the spending increase for schools, giving Evers “high marks for creativity.”

His organization lobbied the Evers administration to spend $17 million more by simply striking the $679 in the first year, which would have delivered $704 in aid per student in both years, so the $87 million increase came as a surprise.

“It didn’t even occur to me that you could un-delete language that had previously been deleted,” he said. “He went far beyond what I had envisioned. I was just looking for a modest increase.”

Altering intent

Evers also used his partial veto authority to substantially change legislative intent in other ways.

In another K-12 aid section, the Legislature tried to provide up to $1,000 per student to districts with high property value per student. Such districts are typically in rural areas with expensive lakefront retirement homes and a small number of students, many living in poverty. Evers vetoed most of the language so that instead, every district will receive a few dollars of aid per student.

The section now reads: “A school district is eligible for aid under this section” and “beginning in the 2019-20 school year, the department shall pay to each eligible school district an amount.”

Supplemental student aid veto

Gov. Tony Evers used his powerful veto 78 times, sometimes to create new spending not intended by the Legislature. In one example, shown here, the Legislature tried to create a new type of K-12 aid for a small number of school districts with high property values that lose out on other types of aid through the state's funding formula. Each would have received up to $1,000 per student. Instead, under the language created by Evers' veto, a few dollars per student will be distributed to every district.

In another example, the Legislature tried to use $3 million in Volkswagen settlement funds to help school districts buy energy-efficient buses. The money comes from a federal lawsuit alleging the automaker cheated on emissions testing.

Evers deleted much of the language, but kept in place the word “for” and “alternative fuels” to direct up to $10 million of the funds to a program for electric vehicle charging stations and an additional $15 million for the transit capital assistance grant program. Esenberg called it a “startling use of veto power.”

Esenberg noted Republican lawmakers could have put the appropriations in separate sentences, potentially thwarting the governor’s alterations. That’s because the constitutional amendment voters approved in 2008 prohibited using the veto to create new sentences by combining parts of two or more sentences in an appropriation bill.

Lawmakers in the 2005 Legislature initiated the constitutional amendment after former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle strung 20 words together within 752 words to form a new sentence allowing a $427 million transfer from the transportation fund to the general fund to be used for public schools. Still, the governor can remove entire sentences or words within sentences, or, apparently, bring deleted words and sentences back to life.

Republican leaders tried to “line-item-veto-proof” their budget as much as possible, replacing wording such as “shall not” or “may not” with “cannot,” which would prevent Evers from deleting “not” to significantly change the intention of the language.

Rossmiller said that could have unintended consequences down the road if people believe phrases such as “cannot” or “may not” are not synonymous.

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(12) comments

Rick Czeczok

WEA owns this guy. I stated it at the election, and I stick by it. Walker got rid of the poor teachers and now the WEA wants them back, Why, there is big money in unions. Protectionism for poor results will not give our children any kind of advantage it only protects poor results by individual teachers. Most teachers are in it for the right reason, but the few that the WEA protects just makes no sense of why a union is needed. Teachers are educated and smart enough to work there own deals. Do they really need a union do their talking for them.? The WEA got greedy and had a our way or the highway attitude, that is what bought them down. Where is the proof that the same type problems won't return. Poor teachers should not be teaching, period.

GrandpaS

"Walker got rid of the poor teachers and now the WEA wants them back, Why, there is big money in unions. " Yes, there probably is big unions. And if the GOP can take big money from individual billionaires, the medical industry, the oil industry, etc., etc., and if they can grant huge tax cuts to people who really don't need cuts that big, why is it evil for the WEA and/or Democrats to accept big money from unions? Isn't that imposing two different sets of rules for the two parties? Yeah, it is. Kind of like when the state legislature had a lame duck vote to take some of the authority away from Evers that they had given to Walker. There are many, many samples of Republicans doing something sleazy and then squealing like crazy if the Dems do the same thing. It's to the point where that has gotten old. A couple quick examples: Accusation: Obama plays too much golf. Fact: Trump plays way more golf. Accusation: Obama can only give a speech by reading the teleprompter. Fact: Trump (and every president since electricity was discovered) also reads from the teleprompter. Accusation: Obama wrote way too many executive orders. Fact: Bill Clinton and G. W. Bush both wrote more EO's than Obama, and if he continues at his current rate, so will Trump. Accusation: Why can't we see Hillary's e-mails? Fact: Why haven't we seen Trumps tax records and other financial information that presidents have been making public for decades. Always: If the Dems do something out of line, Fox will hold it up like a flag for days and days, maybe weeks or months. If Trump screws up, Fox ignores it. And huge numbers of Trump supporters do exactly the same thing. That's called "a double standard," and it's concerning and irritating that the GOP lives with and promotes that double standard day in and day out.

Rick Czeczok

So in your way of thinking, two bad's do make a right? WOW great writing on your part, it tells us a lot about you. Just saying.

GrandpaS

Should be, "Yes, there probably is big money in unions"

PhysicsIsFun

RickyBoy, speaking from the perspective of a 30+ year Wisconsin public school teacher and a 10+ year union chief negotiator you as usual know absolutely nothing about what you are writing about, but you have stated it as idiotically and ungrammatically as possible. I'll give you that.

Rick Czeczok

Really, what a fool you are and you were one of those that was protected. By the way I was in a union also and was in on negotiations also. So once again you are making a fool out of yourself and bragging yourself up as usual. Give your real name so we can check on all these credentials you keep claiming you have. I think because you keep adding to your resume every time something comes up in the flavor of the day conversation, that you are a nobody just writing to prove to yourself that you are someone. Probably writing from a 8 x10 cell. So give your real name or SHUT UP!!!!!

PhysicsIsFun

Once again Ricky you shoot off your "mouth" with idiotic thoughts. "Really, what a fool you are and you were one of those that was protected. By the way I was in a union also and was in on negotiations also. So once again you are making a fool out of yourself and bragging yourself up as usual." I am trying to wrap my head around the reasoning (or the lack thereof) demonstrated here. Your a lame brain with nothing of value to add. Name calling and pleas for real names is not a valuable contribution. You belonging to a union is not germane to the conversation. You and Newt need to get together and take take some remedial English classes. Maybe then you will be able to communicate better the insane thoughts bouncing around in your heads. We are still waiting for the specifics on your 13 years of experience as a teacher, You are all about revealing personal identities, and you claim to have twice given these details. Do it just one more time. We all need a laugh. Maybe you can explain once more how alcohol "evaporates out" water from gasoline at subzero temperatures, Was that one of your fact filled lessons in your much vaunted career as an educator?

PhysicsIsFun

You're a lame brain... Good grief!

Rick Czeczok

Pyscho, I got your buttons you fool. Yeah you are one important big shot. You say you are so smart and yet with the web you can't figure out were I taught, what a joke. I have stated it twice in past posts go back and look it up. And you say I'm the lame brain.

Cassandra2

Still waiting for the great unmasking, Comrade Zerocock. I DARE YOU to tell the world who you claim to know I am. You won't because you can't. Either you are a total chickenshiit or just a liar. Which is it?

Rick Czeczok

Don't you know who you are. By looking at your posts I can believe that. Now back to that 24 "pizza and gallon ice cream for your afternoon snack. Please take a bath, people should not have to be told that, but obviously in this case it has to be said. Others do have to be around you. And you're supposed to be bright.

Jobaba

Sure, sure - NOW it's a problem! lol! But wait! In the words of a genius Trump supporter - Evers now has the state on the right path. Who cares as long as the economy is fine and there are no problems? Can we name one problem on Evers? Name one? As long as the problem you name has nothing to do with Wisconsin, Evers, or a problem. See? You can't do it. Evers is the best Govenor Wisconsin has ever had and making Wisconsin great again!!

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