One of the greatest contradictions in politics today are those who declare themselves “pro-democracy” while seeking to gerrymander election districts, support FBI crackdowns on speech, attack reporters and whistleblowers, and defend censorship. One of the most vocal in expressing his pride in “being pro-democracy” is Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, who just used a partial veto power to negate legislative authority in his state.
Evers was given a bill that increased funding for the 2024-25 school years. Using his partial veto authority, Evers crossed out the “20” and the hyphen. In doing so, he changed the law to allow K-12 schools to raise their revenue per student by $325 a year until 2425. It was never intended nor contemplated by the Republican-controlled legislature.
No one is seriously arguing that this was an intended use of the partial veto authority. Indeed, after prior governors used the partial veto to create new words in legislation, it was barred in 2008. However, Evers is now doing the same thing by eliminating digits and punctuation to create new numbers.
Evers has been a recidivist in such manipulation of legislation, issued 51 partial vetos, including three struck down by the state Supreme Court.
Yet, this is arguably the most offensive to anyone who values the democratic process. Evers is completely ignoring the language and intent of the legislature and committing the state to increases in funding for hundreds of years. It guts the defining power of the purse exercised by state and federal legislatures.
Evers has long put the hype into hypocrisy as a politician who continually portrays himself as a “defender of democracy” while routinely engaging in executive overreach. His favorite tagline is “I’m not going to back down when it comes to defending our democracy.”
Evers clearly approaches saving democracy like the generals approached saving villages in Vietnam when they insisted that they had to “destroy the village in order to save it.”
According to Evers, defending democracy means undoing democratically enacted legislation and unilaterally imposing his own agenda.
Notably, the state school superintendent, Jill Underly reportedly expressed gratitude for the sleight of hand but immediately asked for more money.
This should not be a difficult question legally. No reasonable interpretation of a partial veto power would include the ability to change numbers anymore than changing words. However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has long been a political battleground in the sharply divided state. The result are elected justices who are regularly accused of partisan agendas.
This case could prove a test of the court’s integrity. To support Evers is to dispense with any pretense of democratic process.
Of course, Evers can insist that the legislature can always override his partial veto if it can muster the two-thirds vote in the divided legislature. However, that misses the point. Regardless of any override, the governor’s actions are still anti-democratic in changing the meaning of a law in this way.
Evers is not the first to use what is called the Vanna White veto of flipping around words or numbers. Republicans governors like Scott Walker and Tommy Thompson also took such liberties. They were equally wrong.
Yet, there is no hue and cry from those who have cloaked themselves in the democratic cause when convenient. Instead there were celebrations. Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle said “everybody will shout and scream but he’s got ’em.”
He also “got” democracy.
It is true that Wisconsin has the broadest — and most ridiculous — veto power in the country. However, it was reduced to avoid this type of manipulation of the meaning of laws. Moreover, this is not a change within the confines of the law. The law was designed to appropriate funds for a one year period and Evers turned it into a four century appropriation.
Just as the Washington Post proclaims that “democracy dies in darkness,” it can also die in the daylight. The test of principle is to stand faithful to it when it is not to one’s own advantage. Evers clearly failed that test. However, judging from the gleeful celebrations, he is not the only one.