Behold the power — and the limitation — of the gubernatorial veto. Minnesotans — including many of those who occupy seats at the State Capitol — are being schooled anew these days about a governor’s constitutionally endowed ability to stop legislation in its tracks.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton put on a veto clinic last week. Five Republican-designed budget bills and two anti-abortion measures were toppled — or, more accurately, had been returned to the Legislature to be either buried, revised or revived via an override vote. A “go ahead, make my day” veto threat hangs over five other budget bills that got stalled last week in a shorthanded state Senate.
This veto frenzy was no surprise. It came after negotiations over the 2018-19 state budget came to an abrupt halt Tuesday. Republicans complained that the governor was not moving far enough, fast enough, toward their position. How sending him bills he was certain to veto was supposed to prod him in their direction is not clear.
Dayton’s vigorous vetoes show that he has come to understand that governing isn’t hockey. So said 10-term DFL state Sen. John Marty, a former gubernatorial candidate whose interest in that office extends to its prerogatives — and whose hockey analogy befits a governor who once played goalie for Yale University.
Marty explained that when Dayton was new to his office, he sometimes spoke about Republican bills as if they were incoming pucks. Some things he didn’t like were bound to get past him, he would say.
Not much got past Dayton last week.
“The Constitution gives governors something that no goalie has,” Marty said approvingly. “A veto is a brick wall they can’t get around, unless they have the votes to override him.”
This year’s GOP majorities do not. An override vote requires a two-thirds majority. House Republicans are 13 votes short of that bar; the Senate majority would need 11 votes from DFLers to override a veto. That’s a deficit much too large to overcome in the current era of partisan tribalism — especially since it would mean opposing a governor with a handsome 62 percent approval rating in the latest Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
“A governor gets to take things off the table and keep them off,” Marty said. “If he says something isn’t in the best interest of Minnesota, he doesn’t have to negotiate. He can just say no as many times as necessary to make that stick.”
True enough: A veto is a very effective way of saying “no.” But operating a government — the point of the entire exercise — requires getting to “yes.” “No” won’t finish the job.
The most debated question among us professional second-guessers last week was whether or not all those vetoes helped the cause of passing a new state budget before July 1, when state offices will go dark without one.
Marty argued in the affirmative. “It will help the Legislature finish on time if they know that there are some things the governor will not negotiate,” he said.
The two abortion bills vetoed last week traveled to the governor separately, rather than in budget bills, because Dayton’s veto threat was unmistakably clear, Marty maintained. He hopes the same clarity will be perceived in Dayton’s declaration in a veto letter Friday that he “strongly opposes” the teardown of a 40-year-old public campaign subsidy system. Marty says if legislators see that they have only two choices — either remove that provision from the bill or watch the agencies it finances fall idle after July 1 — they’ll leave the public subsidy system alone.
A Capitol veteran who wrote the book — er, paper — on gubernatorial veto power wasn’t as sanguine about the virtue of multiple vetoes. Peter Wattson, a state Senate attorney from 1971 to 2010, didn’t see much to cheer in the decision to collect an armload of veto messages.
“This is not game-playing. We have a government that needs to run,” Wattson said. “The two sides at the Capitol have legitimate disagreements. The way to resolve them is to talk, probe, explain objections, discern what’s important, find what it is that the other side wants. You don’t do that by lobbing bombs back and forth.”
Allowing a governor to make good on veto threats might have some value, Wattson allowed. It could disabuse legislators and their allies of the wishful thinking that the governor was bluffing when he said “no.”
But it’s not evident that fanciful notions of that sort have been an impediment to budget-setting this year. Rather, Republican leaders last week seemed intent on showing Minnesotans that the House and Senate had sent a full set of budget bills to the governor, so that they could claim that “We got our work done on time!” and to blame Dayton for any impasse that stays unresolved past May 22, the Constitution’s regular session deadline.
I suspect that Minnesotans know better. They learned during the shutdowns of 2005 and 2011 that legislators aren’t “done” until the bills that keep state government financially afloat are signed into law by a duly elected governor — in Dayton’s case, duly elected twice.
If preparation for that kind of blame-laying was its aim, then last week’s veto marathon was a poor substitute for real negotiations of the kind Wattson described. It only served to pound stakes deeper into partisan grounds, at a time when legislators and the governor ought to be urgently seeking common ground.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.