Those of us who follow state legislation watch the sponsor, the committee chairs, the speaker and the president. We follow the media, check the legislative calendar, and look for vote updates. But just behind the drapes is the governor, and even though they aren’t allowed to introduce or sponsor a bill, they can be one of the biggest players during a legislative session,
“That’s one thing that makes American legislatures different from the rest of the world,” says Thad Kousser, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. “The (nation’s) leader, prime ministers, or presidents can introduce legislation in some countries. But the letter of the law is that governors can’t.”
The Trump Card
But what the governor does have is the strength of their personality, the media attention that comes from being the top state politico, and the ability to draw on allies in the legislature, and subordinates in the executive branch. And the governor has a veto, the authority to modify or outright kill a bill a legislator may have been elected to implement, and probably spent all session, year, or even several years, angling, cajoling, sucking up, and trading favors for to get it through the legislative process. It’s enough to leave legislators quaking in their boots.
Pulling the Levers of Power
In practice, governors don’t have any problem getting their bills in the hopper. And legislators “fall all over each other to introduce the governor’s bill,” notes Kousser.
Governors lay out their agenda and priorities in the State of the State speech where they promote favored legislation, highlight accomplishments, thank supporters, and occasionally take a dig at opponents.
Georgia’s Governor, Nathan Deal, first introduced the concept of criminal justice reform in his 2011 State of the State address, when his Republican colleagues scoffed at cutting prison sentences.
Deal gained support among fiscal conservatives with claims Georgia could lower its $1 billion prison budget by moving away from mandatory minimum sentences and toward rehabilitation for non-violent offenders. Religious conservatives came around with education on the brutal impact that a prison term can have on a family and community and Deal sweetened the pot for Democrats by agreeing to end the requirement that the formerly incarcerated notify prospective employers they had served time.
Deal’s coalition building has helped to pass much of his wish list, and while the results aren’t huge, the criminal justice budget has dropped some. By 2014 Deal was claiming his efforts had reduced African American incarceration by 20 percent.
Once the governor’s proposal is officially introduced, they have a variety of levers to pull to show their support.
“In a sense (governors) are lobbyists for what they want. They are interested in passing legislation,” said Christopher Z. Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
“They will visit (the sponsor’s) district, mention the proposal in a speech, and move along a capital project in the district,” said Mooney. “They talk it up with the media. It’s a form of the bully pulpit.”
Meanwhile, the governor gets more media coverage than any other state official, says John Weingart, director of the Center on the American Governor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers.
“The governor is the face of the state, garnering public attention, and making issues important,” said Weingart.
Legislators passed 41 percent of the 1,088 policy and budget proposals that governors announced in their State of State addresses, and delivered a compromise measure on another 18 percent, according to an analysis by Kousser and Justin H. Phillips in their 2012 book The Power of American Governors. Compare that to an average of 25 percent of all state bills introduced being passed, and the pendulum would seem to swing heavily in the governor-introduced bills’ favor.
During a session the governor and the legislative leaders will be discussing, negotiating, and working over bills as they move through committees. Many governors won’t hesitate to pick up the phone to tell the sponsor to modify a proposal or drop it entirely.
Breaking Down the Veto
The veto threat gives the governor the stick to go with the carrot of dispensing goodies. For the most part vetoes remain a threat that is not often inflicted. Governors nationally actually veto less than five percent of all bills, according to a study from the Center on the American Governor, though the percent varies by governor and year.
A low number of vetoes is a sign of a strong governor, said Mooney, as it demonstrates they has been involved with the legislative process, guiding and working proposals, and using the veto threat, to ensure that bills that make it to their desk are ready for signature.
Like many legislative procedures, veto rules vary across the states. However, all governors have the authority to veto an entire bill, and most states give governors options when they want to veto portions of bills.
Common vetoes of this type are the reduction veto, allowing a governor to reduce dollars in an appropriation bill, an amendatory veto where the bill is sent back to the legislature with a request for a specific change, and a line item veto where specific language is cut, says Mooney.
The line item veto is used in 44 states, according to Politics in American States – 10th Edition, co-edited by Kousser. Governors can use it to cut individual lines in a proposal, and even individual words, depending on the state constitution.
A Vowel or a Consonant?
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional for the governor to delete the word ‘not’ from a sentence reading ‘This shall not be used for’ something, entirely changing the meaning of the bill.
“This became known as the Vanna White veto because the governor could pick a letter to change,” said Mooney.
Overriding a veto isn’t easy, even when the governor is in the minority party. A few states require a simple majority to override, though most require a supermajority, which can range from a three-fifths to a two-thirds vote. Whatever the number, many legislators don’t want to vote against a governor’s veto.
For example, the Republican governor of Illinois recently vetoed 170 bills passed by a Democrat-controlled General Assembly as the two parties battled over a massive budget shortfall, says Mooney. The upshot? “The Democrats only managed to override one of the governor’s vetoes,” he said.
Anyone following a state should learn its rules on vetoes – the timing, the types, the votes needed to overturn, advises Weingart.
These powers to influence legislation before it is introduced, during the session, and after a bill is on their desk make governors the single most powerful legislator in the state. It would be wise to keep your eyes on the person behind the curtain.