Wisconsin Justices Take Up Fight Over Budget Vetoes

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, surrounded by Democratic lawmakers and members of his cabinet, speakers at a news conference on June 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer, File)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed Monday to weigh in on a budget dispute between the Democratic governor and state Republicans, taking up a lawsuit filed by a conservative advocacy group challenging the practice of partial vetoes.

The lawsuit was originally filed last Wednesday by three taxpayers represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, or WILL, an advocacy group that promotes conservative ideals in public policy. It takes aim at four partial vetoes of almost 80 carried out by Democratic Governor Tony Evers over four weeks ago.

The suit, which takes the form of a petition for action filed directly with the state’s high court, takes issue with how Evers struck portions of the GOP-controlled Legislature’s budget in order to effectively create new laws – something that has been common practice for governors in the Badger State for decades.

In a memo filed with the petition, Richard Esenberg, president and general counsel for WILL, called out the “ingenious gamesmanship” of Evers’ partial vetoes.

“The technique challenged here is the governor’s ability to remove essential conditions from legislation that he otherwise approves and thereby create a new- and different- law enacting a policy that the Legislature did not choose,” the memo states.

Esenberg lamented how this tactic “turns lawmaking into a context of semantic wit” that encourages the Legislature and the governor to maneuver around each other until one or the other “proves to be the cleverer in playing what amounts to a game of Scrabble.”

The lawsuit points to four partial vetoes Evers penned that create a grant program awarding taxpayer money for electric vehicle charging stations, eliminate conditions on how $75 million in transportation funds appropriated by the Legislature can be divvied up, increase registration fees for drivers of heavier trucks, and set new regulations and impose new taxes on vaping products.

WILL’s lawsuit asks the high court to overturn its own 1978 order upholding such vetoes that create new policies from chopped parts of budgets, issue a declaratory judgment calling Evers’ vetoes unconstitutional, and issue an injunction prohibiting spending taxpayer money as directed by the vetoes.

Political bickering over a given governor’s vetoes are nothing new in Wisconsin, a state that endows the chief executive with more veto power than most and whose constitution has allowed partial vetoes since 1930.

Referenced in WILL’s memo are two recent beefs over veto powers that resulted in amendments to the state constitution.

The first was in 1990 when former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson was taken to task for how he used his veto power to get rid of individual words and digits to change legislation. This move was dubbed the “Vanna White veto,” referencing the actress and hostess of the game show “Wheel of Fortune.” Voters ultimately passed a constitutional amendment curtailing that power.

The second constitutional amendment came years later during the tenure of Democratic Governor Jim Doyle. That amendment prohibited what it termed the “Frankenstein veto,” whereby a governor would strike whole sentences, paragraphs or pages of a law but keep certain words or numbers to assemble what was in effect entirely new language.

Esenberg stressed in the memo that “there is no other way to say it: the governor is now drafting and enacting his own set of laws.”

WILL’s lawsuit was filed one day before conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn was sworn in as the newest member of the state supreme court, replacing longtime liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson, bringing the balance on the bench to a 5-2 conservative majority.

The high court’s Monday order instructs the petitioners to file an amended petition in the form of a complaint by Aug. 19 before moving forward.

The move is the latest by the justices to advance a discordant relationship between the GOP-controlled Legislature and Governor Evers’ administration.

Late last Thursday, Republican legislators, led by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R- Juneau, sued Attorney General Josh Kaul for not complying with lame-duck laws outlining how the state’s top law enforcement official can settle the state’s lawsuits and handle money from those settlements.

That suit makes nearly a half dozen lawsuits, some of which are still in play, over the lame-duck laws. The laws were signed by former Republican Governor Scott Walker after an extraordinary session of the Legislature was called less than a month after Evers and Kaul prevailed in 2018 midterm elections, where liberals took every statewide office.

Thursday’s suit also bypassed the lower courts and directly petitioned the high court for action.

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