Thursday, February 22, 2007

Deconstructing Frankenstein

Senate Democrats are rightly taking it on the chin for blocking efforts to put an end to the so-called "Frankenstein veto." Why on earth legislators wouldn't want to rein in the power of the governor and restore the balance of power between the two lawmaking branches of government is beyond me.

Trouble is, the solution that's been offered doesn't solve the problem. A proposed constitutional amendment by Republican Senator Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls does not kill Frankenstein.

Harsdorf's constitutional amendment would continue to allow governors to stitch together bits and pieces of an appropriation bill to create laws that the Legislature did not approve or authorize. It would expressly prohibit one way governors do that, but still leave plenty of room for mischief.

The proposed amendment says governors "may not create a new sentence by combining parts of two or more sentences of the enrolled bill." That means a governor could still delete one or more parts of a single sentence, such as the word "not," and stitch together the remnants to create a law with the opposite meaning of the one approved by the Legislature. A governor also would continue to be permitted to delete whole sentences or paragraphs or sections or subsections of bills and piece together what remains to fashion new laws that the Legislature did not approve, as long as care is taken not to create a new sentence by combining parts of two or more sentences.

The proposed amendment to our state constitution would not have prevented Governor Doyle from stitching together the remnants of a single sentence to increase the state's bonding authority for major highway projects from $140 million to $1 billion without the approval of the Legislature. That Frankenstein veto can be found in Section 683d of 2003 Wisconsin Act 33.

If the proposed amendment had been in effect during Tommy Thompson's tenure in office, it would not have prevented Governor Thompson from vetoing parts of a single sentence to spend $319 million per year that the Legislature did not authorize. This veto appears in Section 2135t of 1991 Wisconsin Act 39 and resulted in $1.2 billion in spending over four years for a school tax credit that the Legislature had decided to eliminate and replace with a different form of property tax relief.

The proposed amendment also would not have prevented Governor Thompson from vetoing parts of a single sentence to repeal the Property Tax Rent Credit. This little beauty in Section 2m of 1999 Wisconsin Act 10 cost taxpayers $234 million in higher income taxes before the tax credit was eventually restored.

Another time, Governor Thompson unilaterally increased the amount of sales tax collections that retailers were required to pay by using Frankenstein vetoes to reduce the amounts that could be deducted as "administration expenses" in Section 510 of 1991 Wisconsin Act 269. That veto increased revenues by something on the order of $25 million to $35 million. Harsdorf's amendment wouldn't have stopped that one either.

Governor Doyle used the same stitching technique that Thompson employed to unilaterally increase an agricultural chemical cleanup surcharge from 38 cents per ton to 83 cents per ton, while the Legislature had approved an increase to only 63 cents per ton. That veto can be found in Section 1745 of 2003 Wisconsin Act 33. Again, the proposed constitutional amendment would allow this Frankenstein to live.

Neither side – not those who oppose fixing the problem just because they belong to the same political party as the current governor who now wields this monstrous veto authority and not even those who support the proposed constitutional amendment that is advertised as a remedy – gets it. Neither group of legislators is doing what's best for the Legislature and the people its members represent or what's right for democracy.


pvl said...

Amen ... when do we get back to our representatives taking their obligation to the people more seriously than their next election?

Anonymous said...

What does the bill limit or prevent? If nothing, why the bill in the first place?