USED WELL, THE line-item veto is a powerful weapon to fight budgetary logrolling. In fact, used well, it can empower legislators as much as it empowers governors.
Although House members can reject individual spending items when the House debates the budget and senators can reject individual items when the Senate debates the budget, the final version of the budget often bears little resemblance to those early plans. It is the work of a conference committee of three representatives and three senators, and it is presented to the House and Senate as a package: Lawmakers can accept the entire thing, or they can reject the entire thing. They can’t amend it.
The governor can amend it by deletion — within reason. She can’t strike words out of provisos to change their meaning, and she can’t change the numbers, as she now says she should be able to do, but which would upend the whole idea of what a veto actually is. And what a governor is.
But she can eliminate entire spending items and provisos, which set forth the rules for some of the spending. And by doing that, she gives legislators the opportunity to consider those items individually, without having to worry that voting against them would result in a government shutdown.
This doesn’t automatically bust up the vote-trading coalitions — you patronize my museum, and I’ll love your parade — and in fact it can strengthen them if a governor goes after too many parochial projects, as then-Gov. Mark Sanford discovered. And rediscovered. And never quite learned. But sometimes it shines enough of a spotlight on ill-considered expenditures to force legislators to back down.
And to the degree that Gov. Nikki Haley used her veto pen for that purpose on this year’s budget, she was fairly effective. When the House took up the first of her pork-barrel vetoes last week — a $30,000 pass-through to help pay for a park in Irmo — House Ways and Means Chairman Bryan White didn’t actually ask his colleagues to override the veto. He merely “explained” what it was: “It is what it is.”
And seeing what it was, only 36 representatives voted for the park, while 74 voted against it. Indeed of the 31 items the governor called “earmarks” — the politically correct term for pork — the Legislature agreed with her on 20, striking out funding for local parks and pavilions and museums and charitable efforts that might be fine for local governments to sponsor, but not appropriate in the state budget.
She had less luck with the rest of her vetoes — convincing lawmakers to uphold only 13 of 50 — not just because she was using the veto pen for purposes for which it was never intended (shutting down entire agencies, without any phase-out plans in place) but also because her politics were off, her logic was tortured, and her facts were just plain wrong.
The governor probably lost her attempt to defund rape crisis centers because that came off as terribly insensitive even before she characterized them as “special interests,” which a 12-year-old would have to know would sound like she was referring to rape victims; even her most dedicated disciple, Rep. Ralph Norman, joined in the 111-0 vote to overturn that veto. But it was the tortured logic of her initial, one-would-assume carefully considered, veto message that undermined any claim to legitimacy for striking money from DHEC’s budget to fund outside programs designed to prevent AIDS, help rape victims and provide assistance to kidney-disease, hemophilia and sickle-cell patients.
The governor wrote that the organizations serve “only a small portion of South Carolina’s chronically ill or abused” and that funding them would “distract from the agency’s broader mission of protecting South Carolina’s public health.” Ignore the fact that putting money in DHEC’s budget that flows directly to an outside group does nothing to distract it from anything; indeed, it is the opposite of a distraction.
Instead, consider the larger message the governor is sending here: If the state can’t do all things, it shouldn’t do anything. Only a small portion of the state’s population ever gets rabies or West Nile Virus or food poisoning; should DHEC do nothing to try to prevent or treat those ailments? Only a small portion of the population drives over a bridge in rural Bamberg County; does that mean the Transportation Department shouldn’t put up barriers to prevent them from driving into the river when it washes out?
Perhaps I’m overanalyzing this. Perhaps, as one legislative staffer explained, the veto message was all about appealing to the governor’s Facebook followers. Say anything. Some people are stupid enough to buy it.
Fortunately, our legislators don’t always fall into that category.
The most disturbing thing about the governor’s non-pork vetoes were how sloppy some of them were; one lobbyist called the veto message “misinformed and unprofessional,” and he has a point. It’s one thing to claim that agencies can keep programs alive by simply moving money around when you know very well — or should know — that state law prohibits that. It’s quite another to issue vetoes that would have the opposite effect of both what you claim and your actual goal.
Consider the governor’s effort to defund the office that administers the Certificate of Need program. This is the program that seeks to reduce expensive duplication, and thus slow escalating medical costs, by requiring hospitals and other medical facilities to get state approval before they undertake expansions or make large equipment purchases; it’s also the program that stopped then-Rep. Haley’s then-patron, Lexington Medical Center, from opening a lucrative open-heart surgery unit, until it was essentially able to buy capacity from Providence Hospital.
But rather than shutting down the CON program, Rep. Murrell Smith explained to the House, the governor’s veto would have shut down all major medical expansions. “Stymied” them, “so there could be no improvements,” Rep. Alan Clemmons said. That’s because the law that requires medical facilities to get state approval would have remained on the books, while the people who can grant that approval were stuck in the unemployment line.
The House overrode that veto 106-6. It wasn’t the widest override margin, but neither did it reflect the animosity toward that program among some of the House’s free-market proselytes. Rather, it reflected the fact that legislators occasionally understand that they have to sacrifice political point-scoring for averting chaos.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at (803) 771-8571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.