Pennsylvania justices to settle line-item veto power dispute

Associated Press

HARRISBURG — A case that pits Pennsylvania’s governor against the Legislature in a battle over the line-item veto could soon rebalance how power is wielded during the state’s annual high-stakes budget negotiations.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Stan Saylor reacts to Gov. Tom Wolf's 2017-18 budget address at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The state Supreme Court recently announced it will hold oral arguments early next month in the challenge brought by state senators of both parties against then-Gov. Tom Corbett in 2014, after he blue-lined millions of dollars in spending, including special funds controlled by top legislative leaders.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who inherited the case from his Republican predecessor, won a unanimous decision from Commonwealth Court just over a year ago, a ruling that governors have the authority under the state constitution to veto individual provisions in what is a major budget bill — amendments to the Fiscal Code.

Those amendments, a grab bag of seemingly unrelated items that end up packaged together, have proven to be very helpful in crafting a budget that can pass the General Assembly, according to House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, a Republican from York County.

Most bills may only address a single subject, but appropriations bills are a major exception. Letting the governor strip out discrete elements of the Fiscal Code amendments, Saylor said, would change the dynamic by weakening legislative power.

“I may not give the governor certain discretion, if I know he might veto the Fiscal Code,” Saylor said during a recent break in the ongoing marathon of budget hearings. The timing of the court argument raises the possibility the case may be decided while Wolf and lawmakers are working on the next budget, due June 30.

All four caucuses — Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate — have asked the justices to overturn the lower court decision.

“I do believe that in this case the Corbett people went too far,” said Drew Crompton, a top aide to the lead plaintiff, Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. “And I think it has huge ramifications, which I have tried to stress to plenty of legislative Democrats — that this gives an unfettered advantage to the executive.”

He said directing spending through the Fiscal Code over the past two decades has had the effect of giving people more information about spending than was available previously.

In a brief to the high court in July, lawyers for the Senate said the Fiscal Code amendments do not release money from the treasury, so they may only be vetoed en masse. The lower-court decision, they argued, would clear the way for governors to reject individual elements of other budget-related bills, such as the Judicial Code, the Public Welfare Code and the Administrative Code.

Wolf did veto Fiscal Code amendments last year because of how they divided money for schools, borrowed $2.5 billion, affected greenhouse gas emissions and regulated oil and gas drilling. A month later, he let the next version go into law without his signature. When he was sent the 2016-17 budget legislation in July, he let it go into effect without its signature, but did sign the Fiscal Code amendments.

The Legislature’s concerns about a gubernatorial power grab were mirrored by the governor’s lawyers. In an August brief, they said the chief executive would be the loser in “an unconstitutional and unwarranted expansion of the Legislature’s power” if the courts say he can’t use line-item authority on the Fiscal Code amendments.

Wolf’s lawyers wrote of a scenario in which lawmakers would limit the main budget vehicle, the General Appropriation Act, to “high-level appropriations,” while spelling out in other bills how funds are to be spent. The effect, they said, would make Legislature’s budget decisions “immunized” from the line-item veto.

The case also raises a technical issue about the kind of notice governors have to provide when they make a veto, and whether lawmakers can adjourn to avoid being formally notified.

It’s far from clear how a court ruling either way will affect future budget deals. Crompton said the Legislature has been refining how it phrases the Fiscal Code amendments to make it more difficult for a governor to exercise his line-item veto.

“We try to write our directive language in the Fiscal Code with no attachment to appropriations,” he said.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the pending case.