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Court affirms Pennsylvania governor’s right to line-item veto

Commonwealth Court on Wednesday upheld the governor’s right to approve or disapprove a state spending bill line-by-line, in a case dating back to former Gov. Tom Corbett but given extra relevance by Gov. Tom Wolf’s use approval of a $23.4 billion partial state budget.

Senate leaders from both parties filed their objections with the court in November 2014 after Corbett vetoed portions of legislation directing the spending of $7.2 million for a variety of purposes, including lawmakers’ office budgets and earmarks.

The senators in the lawsuit, including Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, Majority Leader Jake Corman and Minority Leader Jay Costa, said the governor’s constitutional power for line-item vetoes was limited to the budget itself, not the fiscal bill that specified programs to be funded. They contended the governor only had the power to approve or veto the legislation as a whole, rather than pick or rewrite portions.

In a 43-page opinion authored by Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, the court ruled that the Fiscal Code legislation fell into the same category of “appropriations” as the budget, and the governor therefore had the power to disapprove of or alter specific parts of it.

“While the Governor is not empowered to interfere with the legislative power to craft the purpose and scope of general legislation via a partial veto, he has been empowered with the ability to disapprove of specific items of appropriation in a bill making appropriations of money,” Leadbetter wrote. The court ruled Corbett satisfied legal requirements for publishing notice of his actions by issuing a press release.

Drew Crompton, counsel to the Senate Republicans, said he was disappointed by the ruling but believed it could still be appealed to the Supreme Court.

“It has significant effect on the latitude of the executive branch,” he said. “It affects the separation of powers, and making sure the executive branch doesn’t go any farther than the constitution allows.”

Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said he was concerned the ruling could be interpreted more broadly to allow line-item changes in legislation beyond the budget.

“If this thought, this theory, applies to any legislation, then any governor could change any piece of legislation any way he wants to,” Costa said.

Crompton said he had some hope that the ruling seemed narrowly written to only affect the fiscal code, though he did not know how the Wolf administration might choose to interpret it.

“I don’t want to give anybody any ideas,” he said.

Wolf on Tuesday used line-item vetoes of the long-overdue 2015-16 budget to allow some funding through to prevent a government shutdown and school closures. His vetoes withheld about a quarter of the budget to prompt further negotiation among legislators over the remainder, along with the tax code and pension reform.

The bill he went through, in a process also known as “blue-lining,” was the broader general appropriations bill; legislators adjourned for the holidays and had not yet sent him the more specific fiscal code referred to in the Senate lawsuit.

“It’s very clear the governor has the constitutional authority to blue-line,” said Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan. “We have that authority and will exercise that authority.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or [email protected].


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