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July 22, 2015

Governor Baker’s recent budgetary vetoes highlight another area where the Massachusetts Constitution and the federal Constitution differ.

The strict separation of powers in both documents is often overstated but the Massachusetts Constitution does allow the branches to mix it up far more frequently, as I noted a while back on the issue of advisory opinions.

Today’s lesson involves the Governor’s power of the veto, the line item veto.

When the Governor signed the $38.1 billion budget, he vetoed nearly $163 million in spending, mostly for local projects.

The overall amount of the vetoes constitutes the proverbial rounding error in the multi billion-dollar budget.   But they figure quite prominently for the recipients and the communities in which they’re located.  So the political debates about some of the vetoes will be intense.

The amount vetoed ranges from $5 million for the University of Massachusetts system to $75,000 for Gallery 51 at the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center.

The Governor’s actions were a mixture of total vetoes on specific spending items and reductions in spending on others.   For example, the Library Technology and Automated Resource - Sharing Networks will receive $40,000 less than the $2,676,564 the Legislature approved.

The authority of the Governor to reduce spending items or to veto them outright comes from Article LXII Section 5:

"The governor may disapprove or reduce items or parts of items in any bill appropriating money. So much of such bill as he approves shall upon his signing the same become law. As to each item disapproved or reduced, he shall transmit to the house in which the bill originated his reason for such disapproval or reduction, and the procedure shall then be the same as in the case of a bill disapproved as a whole."

Two thirds of the legislature can overturn each veto, taken up separately.

The federal Constitution does not give the executive the same power though many presidents have asked for it.   Before assuming the presidency, Governors Carter, Reagan, and Clinton each exercised a line item veto.

Congress passed the 1996 Line Item Veto Act and President Clinton used the power to veto just over $1 billion worth of spending.   Groups impacted in Idaho and New York City sued and the case made its way to the Supreme Court.

In a 6-3 ruling, the Court held that the Line Item Veto was an unconstitutional grant of authority, violating the Presentment Clause of the Constitution.  That clause reads: 

"Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it."

 The Court held that this clause doesn’t allow for Presidents to sign a bill while simultaneously vetoing portions of it.  It’s the whole bill or no bill at the federal level.

 Governor Baker thus exercised a power that many Presidents would love to have but are constitutionally prevented from exercising.  

veto, US Constitution, Massachusetts Constitution, Charlie Baker

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