Wisconsin Supreme Court Hears Arguments To Limit Governor's Partial Veto Powers

Apr 21, 2020

Wisconsin governors have the most sweeping veto powers in the nation when it comes to spending measures, allowing them to use the veto pen to tweak language approved by lawmakers. But a conservative organization is looking to scale those powers back.

On Monday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Bartlett v. Tony Evers case, which is related to alterations Democratic Gov. Tony Evers made to the current biennial budget. Rick Esenberg, with the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, says he’s in favor of stripping some of the governor’s authority.

“This process, which approximates a game of Scrabble in which the Legislature attempts to block creative editing and the governor tries to evade those blocks, is not mandated by the Constitutional text, is not supported by its context or purpose and is not rooted in its history,” Esenberg argues.

LISTEN: How The Wisconsin Governor's Powerful Veto Pen Works

Rick Esenberg, with the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, says he’s in favor of stripping some of the governor’s authority.
Credit Screenshot / WisconsinEye

Esenberg says the measures Evers took were outside of the scope of his partial veto powers and they were in violation of the separation of powers between the executive branch and the Legislature.

The complaint stems when Evers took away funds for replacing school buses. Evers instead gave $10 million toward electric vehicle charging stations. Evers also allowed $75 million appropriated in the budget to be used toward any transportation system rather than the intended sole use for local road construction.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Francis E. McGovern. In 1930, he was irate with the state Legislature tacking the smaller appropriations bills to the larger omnibus appropriations bill. The smaller bills were often discussed near the end of the bill process and it was hard to distinguish the importance of each bill to Legislature at large. It was brought to the public in 1930 to vote on whether Wisconsin governors could make partial vetoes.
Credit United States Library of Congress

Researchers at the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau say governors first received partial veto powers as part of a constitutional amendment in 1930. It was put into place when then-Gov. Francis E. McGovern was frustrated with how committees were drafting too many “blanket bills” that were hard “to determine the wisdom of the appropriation.”

Over the years, voters have approved amendments scaling back some of the powers.

In 1990, voters rejected what was known as the Vanna White veto named after the Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White. It allowed governors to omit individual letters, words and punctuation to create new meanings.

In 2008, voters backed an amendment to block what was called the Frankenstein veto — allowing governors to stitch together parts of two sentences to create a new one.  

Colin Roth, an assistant state attorney general and the representative for Tony Evers in the Bartlett vs. Tony Evers case, argues that Evers was well within his rights to make the changes made.
Credit Screenshot / WisconsinEye

Colin Roth is an assistant state attorney general and the representative for Evers in the case before the state Supreme Court. He argues that Evers was well within his rights to make the changes made.

“When the people spoke in 1930, 1990 and 2008 they made their choice. I think they had a menu of options in front of them, the Legislature has had a menu of options in front of it and they didn't choose a reverse complete unworkable law test,” he says.

Justices on the Supreme Court did not make a decision based on Monday’s arguments. But conservatives, who hold a majority, appeared to be more inclined to side with Esenberg, who says Evers overstepped his authority.

Editor's note: A portion of this audio is from WisconsinEye.