Budget Vetoes Part I – WI Governor’s Partial Veto


In Wisconsin, the governor has the ability to veto legislation, but if a bill spends money, the governor has the ability to partially veto the legislation and change only parts of the bill. According to a report by the Legislative Reference Bureau titled “The Wisconsin Governor’s Partial Veto,” most state constitutions grant their governor “item veto”, but Wisconsin’s partial veto is unique. The Council on State Governments 2018 Book of the States shows that five states do no grant item veto powers to their governor at all: Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont. Ten states grant their governor item veto power on all bills, not just bills that spend money: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Utah, and Washington.

The Wisconsin Constitution was amended in 1930 to create the governor’s partial veto power, and remained in that same form until 1990 when the constitution was amended to say, “In approving an appropriation bill in part, the governor may not create a new word by rejecting individual letters in the words of the enrolled bill.” Wis. Const. art V, § 10 (1)(c)(April 1990). The constitution was amended again in 2008 by prohibiting the governor from creating “a new sentence by combining parts of 2 or more sentences of the enrolled bill.” Wis. Const. art V, § 10 (1)(c)(April 2008).

The partial veto was first used in the 1931 and 1933 budgets when 12 vetoes were created. The partial veto was not used after that until Governor Warren Knowles in 1969 when he created 27 partial vetoes in the 1969 budget. Governors after Knowles began using the partial veto more regularly, and Governor Tommy Thompson set the record with 457 partial vetoes in the 1991 biennial budget.

In 1991, as part of the Risser v. Thompson court case, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner said , “It is true that the present governor frequently exercises his partial veto power on nonappropriation items. But that is because the legislature chooses – for reasons unilluminated by the record of this case, but no doubt founded on considerations of legislative gamesmanship rather than on some edifying concept of public interest – to attach substantive provisions as riders to the omnibus appropriations bill. If the legislature stops doing this, the governor’s “creative” veto power will be limited to appropriations matters…That it is unusual, even quirky, does not make it unconstitutional.”   According to an article by the Wisconsin State Bar, former Governor Tommy Thompson has been quoted as calling the partial veto “a pair of scissors” that “allows the governor to strike out individual words and digits from budget bills passed by the legislature.”

The governor may only partially veto a bill that spends money, according to LRB “A bill that raises revenue, even if it increases expenditures, is not an appropriation bill if the revenues are deposited into an existing continuing appropriation.” A provision setting bonding limits is also not an appropriation, even if the bonding levels affect expenditures from current appropriations.

In addition, the LRB report says the governor may veto any word in an appropriation bill, including action phrases and bill section titles; may veto any digit in the bill; and may reduce any appropriation amount by writing in a lower amount. “But there are limits.” LRB says no governor has ever partially vetoed current law text or numbers in an appropriation bill. “Instead, the governor may partially veto only newly created or amended text or numbers that appear in a bill.” The 1990 and 2008 amendments resulted in allowing the governor to veto only new words or numbers in a sentence, or veto new sentences, but may not link words or numbers to form new sentences.

The Governor’s partial veto power can be broken down into five categories: Digit Veto, Editing Veto, Write-down, Vanna White and Frankenstein. Each of these vetoes is implemented in different manners and affects different things.  In this series, the Wheeler Report will give a history of the governor’s veto, the four types of vetoes and the court cases which resulted from their use.  

Thank you to the Legislative Reference Bureau for their assistance in information gathering for this report.