Budget Vetoes Part II – THe Digit Veto

As reported in last week’s Wheeler Blog, the Governor of Wisconsin has the power to partially veto appropriation bills. He is capable of removing specific words, phrases, and numbers from spending bills. One form of the partial veto is the Digit Veto, which works by removing a single digit from any appropriation amount. 

Governor Patrick Lucey was the first to use this veto in the 1973 biennial budget bill. He reduced a $25 million highway bonding authorization to a $5 million authorization by vetoing the number “2”. According to Gongwer News Service (Wheeler Report prior to 1974, editor Dick Wheeler), Governor Lucey said he hoped that the legislature would include additional money for bridge construction in 1974, and that he used the veto to express his dissatisfaction with the 1973 transportation package. “[Governor Lucey] said the conference committee’s action on transportation was ‘less than adequate’ and said he made the Digit Veto of the $25 million additional highway bonding ‘for the purpose of putting everyone’s feet to the fire, including my own.’” By reducing the amount of money authorized by 80%, Lucey hoped to force legislative action on transportation in 1974.

According to “The Governor’s Partial Veto”, by the Legislative Reference Bureau, “Past governors had partially vetoed entire appropriation amounts, not individual digits in those amounts.” Senator Robert Kasten took the first steps towards challenging Lucey’s use of the partial veto by requesting the Senate Organization Committee seek state Attorney General Robert Warren’s opinion on the partial veto. According to the Gongwer News Service on August 9, 1973, Senator Kasten explained his request to Senate Organization Committee Chairman Ernest Keppler, warning “How far does the constitution allow the governor to go in expanding the use of this power? … the governor could, in fact, according to his staff, produce a law which did not even pass the Legislature.”

Attorney General Warren was critical of Governor Lucey’s use of the partial veto in his formal opinion, writing, “This provision confers upon the Governor the authority to approve or reject, in whole or in part, appropriation bills. It does not grant to the Governor the authority to alter a separable part of an appropriation bill. It is immaterial whether the alteration is accomplished by writing in a different figure as opposed to altering the figure established by the legislation by use of a slash or other mark.” 

Speaker Tom Loftus wrote about Governor Lucey’s response to Attorney General Warren’s formal opinion in his book The Art of Legislative Politics:  “He let the program go at the higher figure when the state attorney general said the legality of the bonds might come into question if this veto was taken to the court.”

Every governor since Governor Lucey’s introduction of the veto has used the digit veto to reduce state spending.

The contentious budgeting process also led to the passage of SJR-77, a resolution which created a special committee tasked with reviewing and improving the budgeting process. This committee was divided into two subcommittees: the Budget Process Subcommittee, and the Committee Structure Subcommittee. The Budget Process Subcommittee dealt with logistical concerns, such as how to make information available to legislators and the timetable for preparation of the budget. The Committee Structure Subcommittee handled structural questions, such as whether and how policy issues in the executive budget should be reviewed, the mechanisms for legislative review of administrative rules, and the structure of the budget conference committee.

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