Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 11.31.26 AM
Screenshot

Tom Wolf’s line-item budget veto: A brief recent history of a power play move

What was once a rarely-used move has become essential for three governors in a row, as partisan politics slow the gears in Harrisburg.

The six-month budget impasse that could have shut down schools and state programs isn’t really ending. But those publicly-funded entities are getting a bit of an assist.

In an angsty press conference today, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that he would “line-item veto” a budget plan sent to his desk that doesn’t include many of the items on his wish list, meaning he’s releasing some state funds to programs but vetoing the parts of the budget he’s not happy with.

The practice of the line-item veto in Pennsylvania was once called “rarely used,” but as Harrisburg has become more partisan in the last decade or so, both former Govs. Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett used the practice to either shut down parts of the budget that they didn’t like or encourage lawmakers to do more.

Here’s a look at the practice of the line-item veto in Pennsylvania:

So what’s this partial veto mean for the budget?

Wolf said the $30.3 billion budget plan that was sent to his desk last week was “garbage” and “an exercise in budget futility,” blaming the Republican-led legislature for failing to come to an agreement after more than six months of budget-related negotiations. The plan includes about half a billion dollars less in spending than Wolf was advocating for.

So he used this line-item veto power to essentially only OK some spending in the budget. Pennsylvania law does not allow a governor to take a spending plan and add in appropriations to it, but it does allow the governor to take away or, essentially, delete spending.

In this case, Wolf released about $23 billion in emergency spending that will keep schools, nonprofits and social services open and running. Through the partial passage of this budget plan, schools will soon receive funding that they would have received over the last six months of the budget impasse.

But negotiations on funding increases to programs and any tax increases will continue.

And this has been used before?

It was used as recently as last year. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, line-item vetoed the 2014-15 budget by signing the spending plan that was sent to his desk but vetoing $72 million of it, most of which was the budget of the Pennsylvania legislature.

That amount was equivalent to about a fifth of the budget of the legislature, and he vetoed it so that it would effectively encourage lawmakers to come back to Harrisburg and work on a pension reform plan — one of Corbett’s top three priorities that he wanted to get done by the end of his first term in office.

It didn’t work. Lawmakers, who had $150 million in their own reserves to support themselves and didn’t need the funds Corbett vetoed, didn’t work out a pension plan and Corbett’s priority apparently wasn’t at the top of the list for legislators to hammer out. Corbett also vowed that if he was re-elected, he would call a special session that would require legislators return to the capitol to work on public pension reform.

In the process, according to political observers, he basically alienated his remaining supporters in the General Assembly. He then became one-term Tom.

And Rendell did this too?

Yes. The former Philadelphia mayor and then Democrat Pennsylvania governor was apparently a fan of the line-item veto.

In his first year in office in 2003, Rendell used the line-item veto power to completely eliminate about $4 billion in basic education funding to force lawmakers to work on tax reform and economic development policies. At the time, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the blue-lining move as “rarely used.”

Things were different in 2003 when Rendell vetoed the education funding. That move actually happened in March, several months before the beginning of the coming fiscal year that starts July 1. (Yes, there was a time when they passed the budget early!) So schools wouldn’t have been without funding until several months after the line-item veto was used — much different from today as schools are going on six months without funding.

But the plan didn’t work like Rendell thought it would. The move set off a nine-month budget stalemate that didn’t end until Dec. 23 when the legislature finally agreed to increase the state personal income tax for the first time in more than a decade.

So what happened the other times Rendell used it?

In 2005, Rendell used his line-item veto power not to change appropriations in the budget plan he was sent, but to alter language in the bill itself.

As part of his line-item veto process, Rendell wielded his pen to veto language in the budget that stipulated that federal funds sent to Pennsylvania could not be used for abortion-related counseling. Rendell at the time argued the state legislature couldn’t limit federal funds like Medicaid in that way.

After his vetoes on the 2005 budget, Rendell was sued by former Philadelphia Rep. John Perzel, a Republican who was speaker of the House, and former Sen. Robert Jubelirer of Blair County, a ranking Republican. The legal battle ended three years later in 2008 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against Rendell, saying the governor could not use line-item veto power to overrule language in a budget plan. The power is only to be used to blue line actual items.

It didn’t matter though. The money had already been spent from the budget from three years prior, but the precedent was set for future budget negotiations.

Rendell used the line-item veto power again in 2009 when he freed up money in August during a budget standoff so that state employees could be paid and money would be released to fund welfare checks for Pennsylvania residents. He vetoed more than half of the budget though as Democrats were fighting for additional education funding while Republicans opposed raising taxes to do so. (Sound familiar?) The full budget in 2009 was passed in October, 101 days late. The budget did increase funding to public schools and did not raise personal income or sales taxes in the process.

Prior to Rendell, former Gov. Tom Ridge used the line-item veto power in 2000 when he blue-lined $55.3 million in spending that he said were “duplicative projects or were not legal under specifications of the capital budget process.”

Why don’t governors use this power all the time?

It seems intuitive that a governor would use the line-item veto power every year to essentially whittle a spending plan to exactly what they want it to be. But it’s not that simple.

For one thing, as was said before, the governor cannot add funding to a plan, only take away — largely problematic for Democrat executives in favor of spending more on public programming. In addition, they can always be overruled by a two-thirds majority of the legislature.

The other issue is that the line-item veto is not a popular move for a politician. Critics say it allows the executive branch to exercise unchecked power over the legislative branch, and coming along with that, it can alienate allies in the legislature.

For now, Wolf badly needs allies in the state legislature to push his agenda over the next several years he has in office, especially if he has hopes of not becoming another one-term Tom.

But he also badly needs a budget. At least part of one.

×
×

Follow this story

×

Success! You're now subscribed to “PA Budget”

You'll get emails from Billy Penn as this story develops. You can unsubscribe in every email.