Senate approves constitutional amendment to curtail governor’s veto

On Senate floor, GOP deals a series of blows to Evers

Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin State Capitol

Democrats pleaded with Republicans on the Senate floor yesterday in a fruitless effort to persuade them not to push forward with a Constitutional amendment that would curtail the governor’s veto powers.

“I hope we don’t waste too much time on this bill,” said Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison). “You could argue that this is a bill directed against Gov. Evers,” Risser added, diplomatically. “I don’t know if it is or it isn’t.”

Most of his colleagues seemed pretty sure that it is.

The straight party-line vote approving the constitutional amendment came on the heels of a vote not to confirm Evers’ popular ag secretary, Brad Pfaff, despite his unanimous approval by a Senate committee. Evers made a rare appearance on the floor for that vote, as Melanie Conklin reports, and, in a press conference afterwards, the governor called the move “bullshit.”

Despite the outrage over Pfaff’s removal from office, after serving for nearly a year during a farm crisis and garnering overwhelming support from agricultural groups, the Democrats sounded as though they still believed they might appeal to the better angels in the GOP Senate caucus on the veto question.

A vindictive legislature

“This is the kind of stuff that comes back to bite the minority party in the butt,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton). He joined Risser and Mark Miller (D-Monona) in urging the Republicans to consider what might happen if a Republican governor could not veto measures passed by a “vindictive” Democratic legislature. 

“There will be a vindictive legislature coming at some point. And they will pass bills that will strip funding from things that Republicans care about,” Erpenbach warned.

As the debate wore on into the evening, Democrats argued with increasing intensity that the vindictive legislature is already here, and controlled by their GOP colleagues.

Janet Bewley (D-Mason) conjured up Alexis de Tocqueville and imagined what he would think of the state of democracy in Wisconsin. “I think de Tocqueville would say, ‘this is crazy,’” Bewley said, adding that the idea of going to a constitutional amendment to curb the governor’s powers “seems a little dramatic to me, a little over the top, a little power-hungry.”

“Why don’t we do things we’re supposed to do here, like take care of the homeless, before we adjourn?” Bewley asked, referring to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s declaration that the Senate is unlikely to take up a package of homeless aid bills passed by the Assembly.

Fitzgerald left the chambers for much of the constitutional amendment debate, and few Republicans rose to speak, leaving the Democrats to talk among themselves as their GOP colleagues stepped out or sat silently in their seats.

School funding

Among the Republican members who did speak up was Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls).

“Wisconsin has the most power given to the executive branch of government than most all other states,” Bernier said. “And I would argue now, and I would have argued in the past many years, that the executive branch of government has too much power.”

This prompted her colleague Sen Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) to note dryly that he did not recall Bernier sponsoring a constitutional amendment to roll back the governor’s veto in the past, when there was a Republican governor in power. 

But by putting the current constitutional amendment on the ballot, Bernier said, “We give the power to the people.” 

A mental-health program Bernier sponsored in the legislature’s budget proposal was vetoed, she said, and Evers reallocated the funds: “He got to move it to a whole different purpose. That’s wrong.” 

Summarizing the legislative majority’s argument for getting rid of the governor’s ability to add funds to programs using his partial veto, she said: “We have the power of the purse. The governor does not have the power of the purse. It’s our power. He should not be able to create money out of whole cloth in the budget.”

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and  Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) described the amendment as sour grapes by Republicans who are seeking to amend the constitution because they are mad that Evers managed use his veto to increase education spending by about $100 million over what the Republicans had proposed.

“We’re here today because funds were flowing to kids,” Larson said.

“I haven’t read the exact question,” Taylor said, “but unless it says: ‘Are you okay that the governor funded the schools with his partial veto pen, so that the $800 million that Scott Walker took out and never put back can help save our schools?’ then I don’t know if the question is even set up right for the people to really know what’s going on.”

Confusing language

Carpenter read the actual wording of the proposed amendment that would be put to voters in a referendum, prefacing it by saying, “I can tell right now the poll workers are going to say, ‘What the heck? “ The amendment states: “In approving an appropriation bill in part, the governor may not increase state expenditures for any purchase over that provided in an enrolled bill.” 

“People are going to be at their polling booth for like an hour wondering what the heck is up,” Carpenter said. “ and the poll workers are probably going to be like, ‘I want my ballot in English.’” 

Carpenter acknowledged that he had supported previous, bipartisan efforts to curtail the Wisconsin governor’s line-item veto powers, including the so-called Vanna White veto, which then-Gov. Tommy Thompson used to cross out individual letters and create new words. 

Carpenter asked the current measure’s sponsor, Sen. David Craig (R-Big Bend) if his goal was to protect the legislature’s power as an institution, “or is this just going at Gov. Evers?”

“Absolutely. It is to protect the institution–the legislature’s prerogative,” Craig replied.

In that case, would Craig support an amendment that would prevent his measure from taking effect until after Evers was out of office, Carpenter asked.

Craig brushed that aside. “I’ll do you one better,” he said. “It will apply to Republican and Democratic governors going forward.” 

Tuning out debate

That, Erpenbach pointed out, goes without saying. 

Toward the end of the debate, Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) grew impatient with the apparent lack of interest by the Republican leadership in participating in a discussion of their amendment.

“My concern now is we’re having this debate on a constitutional amendment and the Senator from the 13th, the majority leader, has been absent for—what?—20, 25 minutes?”

Fitzgerald returned in time to take part in the vote. The constitutional amendment passed the Senate on a straight party-line vote, 19-to-14.

It now goes to the Assembly, and will need to pass both legislative houses in consecutive sessions before it would come before the voters in a statewide referendum.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.