Wisc. Voters Weaken ‘Frankenstein’ Veto, But Governor Retains Rewrite Power

Published June 1, 2008

Wisconsin voters in April overwhelmingly supported a referendum on a constitutional amendment to weaken the governor’s “Frankenstein” veto, so called because of the monstrosity it has become in the eyes of critics.

Wisconsin’s governor, currently Jim Doyle (D), arguably has the strongest veto power in the nation. Doyle has used that power to delete and rearrange words and numbers–and even parts of numbers–in bills to create new bills with entirely different meanings than lawmakers intended.

About three of every four voters approved the April 1 referendum to block Doyle and future Wisconsin governors from creating new sentences by crossing out words or numbers from two or more existing clauses. However, governors will retain the power to remove single digits to create new figures or delete entire clauses from paragraphs to change their meaning.

Huge Diversion of Money

Backlash against the veto power began in 2005 after Doyle struck 752 words from a budget bill to create a 20-word sentence increasing a transfer from the Transportation Fund to the General Fund from $268 million to $427 million. Doyle wanted to spend the money on education.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explained that move as follows: “To do so, he crossed out hundreds of words, stringing together individual words from unrelated sentences to write a new sentence. To get the $427 million figure, he took individual digits from five sets of numbers.”

Outraged lawmakers called the move a “Frankenstein” veto, evoking the monster in the novel Frankenstein, in which a scientist by that name uses human body parts from various donors to create a powerful creature.

Doyle has used his veto powers in like manner more than 100 times since becoming governor in 2003.

Nearly Unanimous Opposition

One indication of the depth of feeling against the Frankenstein veto power among lawmakers was their support for the referendum. Before they placed it on the April 1 ballot, the proposal received 33-0 support in the Senate and a 94-1 vote in the Assembly.

“One branch of government shouldn’t be able to override the power of another branch,” said state Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan). “Most of my constituents were shocked that the governor so liberally used it to increase government spending and to transfer money from restricted funds.”

Ballweg cited as examples Doyle’s use of the veto in 2005 to transfer money from the Transportation Fund (raised by gas taxes and motor vehicle registration fees) for K-12 public schools, and his move last year to ignore the legislature’s approval of a 2 percent limit on local property tax increases. Doyle used the veto to make the limit 3.8 percent, nearly double the limit lawmakers had approved.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) said, “People were outraged when the veto was used not to cut spending but to increase it.”

The Wisconsin governor’s veto power was created in a 1930 amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution. It states, “Appropriation bills may be approved in whole or in part by the governor, and the part approved shall become law, and the part objected to shall be returned in the same manner as provided for other bills.”

Defended by Supreme Court

The practice of creatively editing appropriations legislation passed by the Senate and Assembly was challenged in a 1988 court case brought by legislators against then-Gov. Tommy Thompson (R). The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the constitutional language was intended as a line item veto but was not written that way. Instead, the court ruled, the provision gave “the governor of this state the authority to veto parts of an appropriation bill, as distinguished from other states which grant their governors the authority to veto items of appropriations.”

The court thus upheld the so-called “Frankenstein veto.” Critics say Doyle took the power to a new extreme.

Doyle did not openly oppose the referendum. However, he told Alex Morrell of The Daily Cardinal newspaper, “I do think people have vastly overblown what this is all about, and I think that the voters should be very careful in changing the constitution and not knowing what some of the ramifications of that might be.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News. Maureen Martin ([email protected]) is senior fellow for legal affairs for The Heartland Institute and editor of Lawsuit Abuse Fortnightly.