This week, Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers made key changes to the state budget passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, slashing GOP tax cuts and guaranteeing education funding increases for the next 402 years. It was a staggering maneuver that follows years of battles between Evers and GOP lawmakers. And it’s one that highlights how a Democratic state leader can use singular executive powers to combat a legislature dominated by Republicans.
Evers pulled these changes off by leveraging a tool known as the line-item veto, a power granted to governors in 44 states, which allows them to veto parts of a budget bill instead of the entire measure. Wisconsin, in particular, gives governors “uniquely powerful” line-item veto authorities for appropriations bills that allow them to target “sentences, words or in some cases even a single character or digit,” according to WisContext’s Will Cushman.
Evers made full use of this power when changing a phrase that increased funding for the “2023–24 school year and the 2024–25 school year” to the “2023–2425” school years by vetoing parts of that sentence. On Wednesday, Evers signed the new $99 billion budget, which will span the next two years, into law.
All told, Evers used a line-item veto 51 times in the budget bill, a move that’s not uncommon for Wisconsin governors. In 1991, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson set the record for the number of line-item vetoes used at 457. Given how expansively it’s been used in the past, voters have also previously amended it to restrict the ability of governors to do things like veto single letters in a word to form a new word.
Evers’s creative deployment of this authority has prompted pushback from Republicans, who could threaten a court challenge. Three of the line-item vetos Evers used in 2020 were struck down by the state’s Supreme Court — which will soon have a liberal majority — for how broad they were. It’s unclear whether the specific vetoes that were used this time around could be subject to the same review. Legislative consequences are also unlikely, since the GOP would need Democratic legislators to band with them to secure the two-thirds majority needed in both the state House and Senate to override a veto.
As such, Evers has reshaped major parts of the state budget and found a way for Democrats to push back despite Republicans’ legislative control.
Evers’s actions could have a big policy impact
Evers’s use of his veto authority is set to have a substantive impact on an array of policy areas including education funding, taxes, and University of Wisconsin jobs focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Evers’s veto on public school funding is perhaps one of the most eye-catching actions he took. Republicans agreed to approve more than $1 billion in additional spending for Wisconsin schools, though it still fell short of Evers’s requests. To guarantee that schools have stable revenue moving forward, Evers tweaked the budget’s language so that districts are now able to implement a $325 annual increase in spending per student. Originally, the legislature approved the increase for the next two school years and Evers’s veto extends it through 2425.
The “vetoes … ensure our school districts have predictable, long-term revenue limit spending authority increases to help meet rising costs for the foreseeable future,” Evers’s office said in a statement.
Evers also dramatically altered Republicans’ proposed tax cuts. Previously, Republicans had included $3.5 billion in tax cuts, which Evers slashed to $175 million. He did so by vetoing reductions in the tax rate for the top two income brackets, while keeping reductions for those in the lower two income brackets, which includes earners making up to $36,840 as a household. Evers also rejected a Republican attempt to condense the state’s four tax brackets into three.
Another area that Evers vetoed was the elimination of 188 jobs in the University of Wisconsin system that were focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, a Republican priority. He did not roll back a $32 million University of Wisconsin budget cut aimed at curbing funds for DEI programs, however. Under the Republicans’ proposal, the University of Wisconsin is still able to access those funds, but it must get approval from GOP legislators regarding its use first.
Republicans have broadly lambasted Evers’s actions, while some progressive activists have said Evers should have done even more with his veto powers and potentially vetoed the entire bill. Specific areas they would have liked to see more actions on include funding for child care and mental health programs. Evers did threaten a blanket veto previously, but ultimately argued rejecting it completely would have been a mistake: “Vetoing this budget in full would mean abandoning priorities and ideas that I have spent four years advocating for.”
Evers’s actions point to the challenges Democrats face under a divided government. Prior to him taking office, Republican legislators worked to limit the powers Evers had as governor by passing a bill that required more approval from the legislature for changes to public benefit programs and that gave lawmakers power over key appointments on the economic development board.
There are six Democratic governors who also find themselves in positions where Republicans lead both chambers of their state legislatures. In Evers’s case, he was able to use Wisconsin’s unique executive powers to creatively get around some of the fiscal policies Republicans sought to advance.