Governors' Lessons in the Art of the Line-Item Veto

Clinton's use marks a first for presidents, but power is not new to many state executives

For an American president, Bill Clinton's line-item veto this week was a first, but many of the nation's governors have been striking lines from state budgets for years.

Forty-three states have laws that allow their chief executives to strike individual items from spending bills. The veto is a tool that has become embedded in their political cultures - and many state experts say Washington can learn a thing or two from their use of it.

What Mr. Clinton can look forward to is a changed dynamic in Washington power sharing. He may have increased leverage in budget discussions, whether or not he uses line-item authority.

Yet at the state level, legislators have often become savvy at finding ways to exempt projects from the governor's veto.

In Texas, for instance, Gov. George W. Bush has to veto almost the entire budget to strike a single item.

"He has to do all of it or none of it," explains spokeswoman Karen Hughes. "For example, he might get an appropriation for the entire University of Texas, not just one or two spending item requests within the university."

The ability to excise individual tax or spending items within legislation is a power that presidents have wanted for decades. When Bill Clinton crossed out three items in the just-passed budget, it thus marked a historic first for the presidency. It wasn't an entirely new act to him personally, however. He vetoed more than 20 spending items during his years as governor of Arkansas.

In terms of frequency, Clinton's use of the state line-item veto was near the median. Many governors employ it far less, striking only egregious pork-barrel items. Others use it as a thick billy club of governance. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson uses it, on average, more than 100 times a year.

Frequency of veto use depends partly on extent of veto power. Governor Thompson has broad authority that allows him to strike even single characters off the page. Thompson once struck a single digit to alter a $500,000 dollar appropriation, reducing it to $50,000.

"I wouldn't have been able to balance the budget" without this veto power, Thompson says. The conservative reformer has long argued that voters want a strong governor with the ability to cut "pork" from budgets, and so far voters have backed him, reelecting him to three terms by ever-increasing margins.

At least one other Midwestern governor agrees that the line-item veto is of great utility.

"I have exercised veto power over the last three sessions on 38 occasions," says Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. Oklahoma's governors have been armed with the authority since statehood in 1907. "It has been an effective tool at the budget table and an excellent way to identify and pare down unnecessary spending," says Governor Keating.

While veto power among the states that have it varies dramatically, governors like Keating and Thompson have found common lessons in its use, and threatened use.

THE real power of the veto pen is found not only in the ability to cleave off lines of wasteful spending. Its very existence has a power as well. Keating is able to influence his budget throughout the process - from beginning to end since legislators know he can utilize the tool. It makes his presence felt from far away.

"That's what people don't understand. That's where the power is," says Brian Roherty, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Offices.

"It alters the power that legislatures and governors share," Mr. Roherty continues. "Politically it is an enormous tool," he says.

Governors credited with using the device most effectively say they consult often, making it clear which items are targets, building trust. In the end however, governors often have the last say. "You can come back and rain all over their parade," says Keating.

Others predict the president can expect Congress to shift its way of doing business just as their legislatures have. State lawmakers subject to the smart-bomb approach become adroit players, savvy to sliding spending items through by putting everything in one big appropriation - making them either hard to detect or difficult to pare out.

Nevertheless, the Washington-based Citizens for a Sound Economy says states with line-item authority have seen the rate of spending increases cut by more than half. Others hope the presidential veto pen will have the same effect.

"Maple syrup research and Lawrence Welk museums are not in the national interest ... that's why I'm hopeful he will use it early and often," says Stephen Moore, an economist at the CATO Institution in Washington.

* John Nichols in Madison, Wis., contributed to this article.

Toeing the Line Item

Forty-three of the 50 governors have some form of line-item veto. Some of the most notable users:

* Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) has used a partial veto more than 1,500 times in 10 years. He has cut $143 in spending and nearly $1.5 billion in taxes.

* Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R) has vetoed virtually every item not in his budget request since taking office in 1995.

* Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) has used the veto to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in spending since taking office in 1991.

* Bill Clinton (D) used the line-item veto 21 times in 12 years as governor of Arkansas. He struck $21 million in spending. The savings, though, amounted to less than 0.05 percent of the combined budgets.

Source: Congressional Quarterly

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