By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans continued their push on Tuesday to weaken 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 series of laws during a lame-duck session in December 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 the state from the lawsuit after a judge had 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 this past 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 had allocated. Republicans responded within days by introducing an amendment to the state constitution that would bar the governor from using his veto powers to increase spending in any bill.
The constitution now gives the Wisconsin governor one of the strongest veto powers in the country. 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 be passed in consecutive legislative sessions and in a statewide referendum before they can take effect. The state Senate’s government oversight committee began that process with Tuesday’s hearing.
The chief Senate author of the amendment, 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 curtail the governor’s veto powers for decades. He pointed to a constitutional amendment in 2008 that ended the so-called Frankenstein veto, which had allowed the governor to delete words and and stitch together the remnants to form new sentences. And he cited a 1990 amendment that ended the so-called Vanna White veto, which let the governor delete 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 two Democrats on the committee, maintained the amendment isn’t necessary since legislators can now try to override vetoes they dislike.
A constitutional amendment can’t be approved with winning 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 in the Senate this session. Craig said the override route doesn’t change the reality that Evers has usurped the Legislature’s spending authority.
Taylor went on to argue that the state elected Evers to act as a check on Republicans. She hasn’t heard anyone complaining about Evers’ spending more money on schools. Craig countered that he has heard from constituents who think Evers went too far.
Risser said he’s worried that future lawmakers, in a spirit of vindictiveness, might cut the salaries of state employees who have angered them. If a governor were to veto such a cut, he could be seen as authorizing a spending increase, Risser said. Craig countered that lawmakers have the right to make policy decisions.
Anna Henning, the committee attorney, said the situation Risser described is murky but the governor could argue that vetoing spending cuts simply restores the status quo.
The hearing lasted only about an hour. No one spoke against the amendment except Risser and Taylor.
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.