Frequently Asked Questions: The Veto Amendment

Tuesday, April 1, 2008 is Election Day in Wisconsin.  In addition to electing representatives for local and state office, voters will see the following question on their ballot. 

Partial veto.  Shall section 10 (1) (c) of article V of the constitution be amended to prohibit the governor, in exercising his or her partial veto authority, from creating a new sentence by combining parts of two or more sentences of the enrolled bill?

This page is designed to help voters understand the history and effect of the proposed constitutional amendment.

Why is a change to the Wisconsin Constitution needed?

In a democracy, it is the legislature’s role to make law and the Governor’s role to approve or disapprove proposed law changes.  The Wisconsin Governor’s veto pen is considered the most expansive in the entire country.  Governor’s of both parties have creatively used their veto power to create laws never approved by the legislature, undermining our democracy. 

For example, in the 2005-07 state budget bill, Governor Doyle reduced a 752-word section to 20 words which resulted in a new appropriation of $427 million from the state's transportation fund that no legislator authorized. The shaded words in the illustration below were partially vetoed to create an altogether new sentence of cobbled together words that read: "the department of transportation shall transfer to the general fund from the transportation fund in the 2005-07 fiscal biennium $427,000,000." 


Click image to view a short video of Dale's speech on to the Senate when the amendment passed in December.

What process must be followed to amend the constitution? 

Amending the state constitution is a difficult process.  Article XII, Section 1, of the Wisconsin Constitution requires that a proposed constitutional amendment must pass both houses of the legislature, in identical form, during two consecutive legislative sessions.  Then voters must approve the measure in a statewide referendum. The proposed constitutional was first introduced in 2005 and received bipartisan support.  It passed 23-10 in the State Senate and 68-25 in the State Assembly.  In the 2007 legislative session, the identical language receivednear unanimous support after elected leaders heard from concerned citizens.  Only 1 of 132 legislators voted against the measure during the amendment’s second consideration. 

Will passage of this amendment eliminate the Governor’s partial veto power?

No. If voters approve the proposed amendment, future Wisconsin Governors will still enjoy broad  partial veto power.  The proposed amendment allows the Governor to veto individual spending items and policies that he/she disagrees with.  The proposed amendment only limits the Governor ability to create new sentences by crossing out words and/or numbers.

Has the Governor always had partial veto power?

No.  Prior to 1931, Wisconsin’s governor only had the power to veto bills in their entirety. In November 1930, Wisconsin’s voters approved a constitutional amendment providing that “appropriations bills may be approved in whole or in part by the governor . . .”

According to the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau, the partial veto power was used sparingly by Wisconsin’s governors until the 1970s. In the 1970s, governors began to use the partial veto power more often, and in more creative ways, enabled by the constitutional language that allows appropriation bills to be approved “in part.”

This language is far more expansive than the provisions found in most state consti­tutions or statutes, which allow Governors to veto “items” from appropriation bills. Wisconsin governors have maximized this power through a variety of methods, including the “digit veto,” whereby appropriations are radically altered by the elimination of a single digit of a large number; the “editing veto,” whereby the clear intent of a sentence can be reversed by eliminating a crucial word such as “not”; the “pick-a-letter veto,” the selective deletion of let­ters to form new words; and the “reduction veto,” in which a figure is deleted and replaced by a lower figure. Both state and federal courts have upheld these creative practices.

Is this the first attempt to limit the Wisconsin Governor’s expansive veto power?

No.  According to the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau, there have been numerous attempts over the years to curtail, eliminate, or modify the governor’s partial veto authority through constitutional amendment. Only one has passed the legislature prior to the 2007 session. This measure, approved by the voters in April 1990, prohibits the governor from creating “a new word by rejecting individual letters in the words of the enrolled bill.” This amendment effectively eliminated the “pick-a-letter” veto. Only a few proposals to modify the governor’s partial veto authority have been introduced since 1991.

In his veto of 2005 Assembly Bill 100, the budget bill for 2005-07, however, Governor Jim Doyle created new sentences from unassociated words and numbers, most notably in veto item A-4, section 9155 of the bill. The veto occurred on July 25, 2005. On August 19, Senate Joint Resolution 33, removing the governor’s power to veto parts of sentences in order to form new sentences, was introduced.