Jim Beam column:Don’t end line-item vetoes

Published 7:17 am Sunday, May 15, 2022

When two of the most conservative Republicans in the Louisiana Legislature disagree on legislation, that’s news. And that is exactly what happened during a hearing by the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee.

The hearing was on a proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Mark Wright of Covington. Wright wants to remove the line-item veto power of the governor. If approved by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature, the state’s voters would have the last word with a majority vote on Oct. 14, 2023.

The House is scheduled to debate and vote on Wright’s bill Monday. If approved there, it moves to the Senate.

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The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) said every state constitution empowers the governor to veto an entire bill passed by the legislature. And 44 states give their governors the line-item veto over appropriation bills, which means he or she can veto particular portions of an appropriations bill.

“Thus, the power to control spending is shared,” the NCSL said. “As a result, budgeting is an area where friction between the legislative and executive branches often occurs.”

Why does friction occur? It’s because governors sometimes use that line-item veto to punish lawmakers who may have opposed them on various issues.

Opponents of Wright’s bill felt it was aimed at Gov. John Bel Edwards. However, Wright said he scheduled the public vote in 2023 when Edwards can’t run for a third term. He said candidates for governor could debate the issue during their campaigns

The Wright bill got out of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee on April 4 with a 6-5 vote. Republicans cast the six votes and the five votes were cast by four Democrats and one Republican.

The legislation was sent to the civil law committee because that is where all proposed amendments have to be approved. It was also approved there and sent to the full House.

Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh of Shreveport, perhaps the most conservative GOP member of the House, told the committee he disagreed with Wright’s plan. He said line-item vetoes have been used on occasion to keep the state budget in balance and the late President Ronald Reagan liked the line- item veto as a way to keep federal spending under control.

Presidents don’t have authority to use line-item vetoes. Reagan supported it because he was prevented  by Congress many times when he tried to eliminate certain established programs from the federal budget.

 Congress did give former Democratic President Bill Clinton that authority with the Line Item Veto Act of 1996. The goal was to control “pork-barrel spending.”

The authority lasted only two years. The U.S. Supreme Court in a 1998 ruling said the act was unconstitutional. With a 6-3 decision, the court said the line-item veto violated a constitutional requirement that legislation be passed by both houses of Congress and presented in its entirety to the president for signature or veto.

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, cast the only GOP vote against the Wright bill when it was heard on April 4. He said the line-item veto provides checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.

Ivey said presidents can only reject an entire federal budget, and asked how that is working out in their efforts to control federal spending.  It isn’t working out, of course.

Governors do use the line-item veto on occasion to get back at legislators who are giving them trouble. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, used a line-item veto last year to wipe out the entire legislative budget.

Abbott used the veto as retribution after House Democrats broke quorum on the last day of the legislative session to block passage of Texas election bills that opponents said would limit voting across the state. The governor added restoration of the funds to the agenda of a special session.

Republican and Democratic Louisiana governors have used line-item vetoes a number of times to remove projects funded by their critics and opponents. Wright said it happened more often from 2000 to 2022 during the two terms of former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The line-item veto is working well in 44 states and it gives the governor and legislators good balance when it comes to spending the state’s revenues. It shouldn’t get that far, but if Wright’s amendment makes it to the ballot next year, voters should reject it and leave well-enough alone.