California steamin’

Trouble is brewing in California between Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the legislature. Legislators there are mad over certain veto threats by the governor. Some legislators claim the governor’s threats constitute “extortion.” So what’s going on?

An important concept in the study of state politics and policy making is the idea a governor is not only the chief executive of a state, but also it’s “chief legislator.” In other words, the governor is not only responsible for executing laws, but is also expected to take a lead role in proposing new policies and then working to get them enacted by the legislature.

In filling this role, governors use their personal and institutional powers. Personal powers include characteristics of the particular person inhabiting the governors office, such as his or her level of public approval, prior legislative experience, or perception that he or she was elected with a mandate from the voters. These qualities are believed to provide a governor with greater influence in the legislative process.

Institutional powers, on the other hand, are characteristics of the gubernatorial institution in a particular state. These powers include whether a governor is term limited, the size of his or her personal staff that help make policy, and the power to veto legislation.

The veto power is a very important one. Most simply, the veto provides a governor with an opportunity to prevent bad legislation from becoming law. Of course, the  veto is subject to override by the legislature, but in most states override requires a supermajority within both chambers, so vetoes are frequently sustained.

Governors can also use veto threats as legislative bargaining chips. A governor might threaten to veto a piece of legislation unless it is amended to include additional provisions the governor favors. For example, a governor might threaten to veto some new business regulations unless there are exemptions for small businesses.

In other cases, a governor might threaten to veto one piece of legislation unless there is a favorable outcome (in the governor’s view) on another piece of legislation.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) has recently used this tactic when he:

… affirmed a looming threat to veto a large bulk of the bills that have been sent to his desk unless lawmakers can strike a deal on a package of water bills.

“I made it very clear to the legislators and to the leaders that if this does not get done then I will veto a lot of their legislation, a lot of their bills, so that should inspire them to go and get the job done”

At least one legislator initially seemed to not take the threat very seriously:

When walking into today’s “Big Five” meeting early this afternoon, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg dismissed the governor’s fresh veto threat as “a bit of a sideshow.”

“It assumes that it takes the governor to encourage us to work harder on water. (We) couldn’t be working any harder, actually, to try to get done,” he said.

Steinberg went on to say that some of the 700-plus bills awaiting action provide services too crucial for the governor to reject them all with a blanket veto.

“When you look at the fact, for example, there are bills to provide billions of dollars to beleaguered hospitals, hundreds of millions of dollars to the most needy schools … and that’s why I think in the end, you can either take the bait, or you can just do your job, and in the end I think this governor will look at the bills on their merits,” he said.

Others are taking the threat more seriously:

Democratic Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, a candidate for AG himself, had asked [California Attorney General Jerry] Brown to review the legality of Schwarzenegger’s threat earlier this week, arguing that the threat is a quid pro quo that could constitute bribery or extortion under the law.

“We can all agree that political extortion is not an acceptable practice in this state. But the Governor’s renewed threats are coming perilously close to extortion under the criminal codes and the California Constitution,” Torrico said in a statement sent out yesterday. “The voters elect us to make and enact laws. But the Governor needs to remember he is not above the law.”

Brown has responded that there is nothing legally wrong with the governor’s veto threat and he won’t investigate:

In the letter, addressed to two lawmakers who had requested separate opinions on the legality of mass veto threats, Brown states that the state constitution protects the governor’s right to decide whether to veto legislation as “an intrinsic part of the legislative process.”

“We believe that the doctrine of separation-of-powers counsels against our inquiring into the legality of Governor Schwarzenegger’s veto threats,” Brown wrote.

The letter goes on to quote former German President Otto von Bismark’s famed quip on the political process — “There are two things you don’t want to see being made — sausage and legislation” — and a line describing the withholding of bills as “a game of legislative ‘chicken,” before delivering a closing message to lawmakers ruffled by the governor’s tactics:

“Compromise in the rough-and-tumble legislative process is not achieved by doilies and tea.”

Torrico says that he plans to introduce a bill that will:

define using threats to veto legislation as a bargaining chip on other issues as extortion.

Torrico said while he respects the governor’s authority to veto legislation, his measure would “end the ambiguity… (over whether) holding the veto threat over our heads, in exchange for the water bill” is illegal.

“Negotiations through extortion, through ransom notes, through threats either by the governor or the legislators under my bill will be clearly unlawful and prohibited,” he said.

I’m no lawyer, but Torrico’s bill seems to run afoul of the separation of powers.  It seems to me that the veto is provided to the governor by the constitution and a constitutional amendment would be needed to restrict its use in this way. At any rate this is probably just political posturing.



One Response

  1. […] : "_post_377", "permalink" : "" } In an earlier post, I had discussed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s threat to veto mucho legislation in retaliation […]

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