The following editorial was published April 22 in the Wisconsin State Journal.
Thank goodness governors no longer have the power to stitch together words and numbers from across pages of the state budget with their veto pens.
Wisconsin voters wisely banned the “Frankenstein veto” in 2008, which had allowed governors to write new law from scratch.
And before that, in 1990, voters prohibited governors from vetoing around individual letters to spell new works, the so-called “Vanna White veto,” named after the woman who turned letters on the television game show “Wheel of Fortune.”
Yet as Gov. Scott Walker showed last week, Wisconsin’s chief executive can still play games with his remaining and considerable veto power. Wisconsin governors can still cross out individual words from single sentences of spending bills.
So Gov. Walker last week crossed the words “2-day” and “Saturday” out of a sentence in a bill creating a sales-tax holiday for school supplies. As a result, the new sentence he signed into law expanded the window for shoppers to avoid paying taxes on back-to-school purchases from two days to five days in early August. His action also increased the cost of the bill by $3 million to an estimated $14.5 million in lost tax collections.
Vetoes are supposed to block or reduce legislative action. They’re not supposed to expand or increase the cost of what the Legislature sends to the governor’s desk.
So last week’s veto is troubling, even if its results are modest, compared to past veto abuses by previous governors.
Gov. Walker last fall also struck the word “not” out of a single sentence in the state budget to change the intentions of the Legislature. Lawmakers had instructed the state Audit Bureau not to do an audit of the University of Wisconsin System during certain fiscal years. By crossing out the word “not,” an audit was suddenly required.
Mostly, though, with a Republican-run Legislature approving the bulk of the Republican governor’s agenda, Walker has wielded his veto powers responsibly.
So don’t expect another push anytime soon to further reduce the power of Wisconsin’s veto pen. Some Democrats objected to the governor’s priorities last week in expanding a sales-tax holiday. But little if any complaints were made about the governor’s veto technique.
That could change in future budget cycles if Wisconsin’s governor — be it Scott Walker or someone else — dramatically carves up bills in ways that expand, rather than reduce, spending. Lawmakers also might restart veto reform if a governor plays games with the wording of sentences to blatantly undermine the Legislature’s authority in significant ways.
Gov. Walker’s latest veto also should be a reminder to top lawmakers that, if they want to protect their priorities and power to legislate, they should employ two simple techniques.
First, write short sentences. That leaves less room for mischief. Second, avoid using the word “not,” which can easily be crossed out to change meaning.
A powerful veto pen can help stop waste, save money and restrain the expansion of government. But Wisconsin citizens still expect a clean process that respects good government principles.
Careful, governor, or your veto power will be clipped again.