MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin Republicans want to rewrite the state constitution to prohibit the governor from using his veto pen to increase spending without legislative approval, marking another skirmish in the GOP's battle to diminish Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' powers.
The Wisconsin Constitution gives the governor one of the strongest veto powers in the country. The governor can strike words, numbers and punctuation in spending bills, bending the Legislature's will to his own by pumping money toward projects he supports while starving opponents' initiatives. Evers used those powers last week on the state budget to give public schools $65 million more than Republican lawmakers set out.
Sen. Dave Craig and Rep. Mike Kuglitsch began seeking co-sponsors Monday for a constitutional amendment that would forbid the governor from increasing funding in bills that appropriate money. They wrote in a memo to their colleagues that Evers' move to bolster school funding is an abuse of power that could damage the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
"The legislature's role in the budget process has been continually eroded by the executive branch, and it is beyond time we right-size the governor's veto pen to protect taxpayers and restore the legislature's constitutional authority," Craig said in a news release Tuesday.
Republicans have been working to limit Evers' powers since he defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November.
They passed a host of laws during a December lame-duck session forbidding Evers from pulling the state out of lawsuits without legislative permission, a tactic designed to keep Evers from delivering on a campaign promise to withdraw from a multistate lawsuit challenging federal health care reforms. Evers still managed to withdraw from the lawsuit after a court temporarily put the laws on hold this spring.
Evers used his partial veto power to make 78 changes to the budget. The only funding increase he created was for schools, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Evers, a former teacher, spent nearly a decade as the state schools superintendent.
Evers' spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said Evers used his partial veto power to bring school funding more in line with what people wanted to see in the budget. She called the Craig and Kuglitsch's amendment proposal a "temper tantrum."
"These sore losers want to change the rules every time they don't get their way," she said.
A constitutional amendment must pass two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and a statewide referendum before it can be added to the document. The governor plays no role in approving constitutional amendments.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos both signaled support. Fitzgerald issued a statement saying the proposal "reflects concerns that I have heard from other members of my caucus." Vos issued a statement saying not allowing funding increases through partial vetoes is "common sense."
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz both said Republicans keep looking for ways to undermine Evers.
"The public should be outraged at the repeated attempts to change the powers of the office because they disagree with how those powers were used," Hintz said in statement.
Partial vetoes have been a thorny issue for the Legislature since at least the 1930s. Fiscal bureau data shows 25 constitutional amendments proposed to limit the governor's power since 1935. The latest amendment to pass referendum was in 2008. That language erased the so-called Frankenstein veto, the governor's ability to string together words to form new sentences.
Walker made 104 partial vetoes in the 2015-17 state budget and 98 vetoes in the 2017-19 budget. Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson holds the record with 457 partial vetoes in the 1991-93 budget. He told reporters during a luncheon in Madison on Tuesday that he supports the Craig-Kuglitsch amendment.
"I'm not going to criticize the governor for vetoes, but there's one area I do not believe governors should be able to veto and that's increasing appropriations," he said. "The legislators have the right to appropriate. Governors do not."
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