Vetoes & The Balance of Power
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s resident liberal columnist, John Brummett, says it is too easy for the legislature to override the Governor’s veto. The Arkansas Constitution only requires a majority vote to override a veto, and any legislation sent to the Governor already received at least a majority.
Brummett called a veto override with only a majority vote “an imbalance of power violating the principle of separated equal powers for the legislative and executive branches.” To him, the states having that threshold are setting up “weakling governors”.[i]
Does he have a point?
In theory it should be easy to maintain a majority and override any veto. But that is not the way it works. It turns out Arkansas governors are so powerful often the legislature is unable to override a veto despite the majority vote threshold.
If there was ever a time when you would think the legislature should have had an advantage, it would have been this session. Governor Asa Hutchinson is a lame duck, with just over a year and a half left on his second term and final term. He cannot seek reelection. Yet despite being a lame duck and despite only a majority vote being required to override his vetoes, the legislature did not override two of his three vetoes.
- The legislature overrode the veto of HB1570 which prohibits minors from being subjected to gender reassignment surgeries and hormone blocking treatments. In the House of Representatives, the override got seventy-two votes, which is two more votes than it received upon first passage.
- The House of Representatives failed to override SB301 which would have required state agencies to return fines collected in enforcing the Governor’s emergency orders on Covid-19. The target of the fines had been small businesses and return of the money would have been a great help to them. The power of the Governor can be seen here as twenty-eight Representatives who had originally voted to pass the bill, flipped and didn’t vote to override the veto.
- The House of Representatives did not even vote on whether to override the Governor’s veto of The focus of the bill was to prevent cooperation with federal authorities if the federal government passes laws, rules, or executive orders infringing on the Second Amendment’s protection of our right to keep and bear arms. Instead, once the Governor vetoed the bill the legislature hastily filed and passed a weaker bill to meet the Governor’s objections.
The actual imbalance of power strongly favors the Governor. Overriding a veto is no shoo-in.
The Governor’s dominance over the legislature was evident last year. Legislators pleaded with the Governor to include them in deliberations on Covid-19 pandemic rules. The Governor ignored the legislature and issued whatever edict he wanted. If there had been an actual balance of power between the executive and legislative branches their pleas might have resulted in some compromise, letting them have at least some role. But Governor Hutchinson was able to ignore them without fear of political payback. It was not until the legislature was in session this year with the pandemic ebbing that the legislature was able to pass laws restraining future emergency orders.
The legislature’s prime source of power is its power over the state budget but its budget powers have eroded as much of the state budget flows without the need to pass an appropriation act. Even where an appropriation act is required the legislature just does not say “no” to a governor.
As state government grows so does a governor’s ability to do favors for friends with appointments, jobs, and grants. This means, if a legislator wants more money to flow to his district or to help a constituent to get a grant or appointment or job, the legislator must stay on the Governor’s good side.
Legislators are also aware of the fact that Asa Hutchinson has taken an active role in Republican primaries where he has worked against some conservative legislators who chose to follow the Republican Platform instead of following him.
And of course, this year the 800-pound gorilla in the room is Governor Hutchinson’s influence over drawing new state House and Senate district boundaries. Every ten years districts are redrawn and this is one of those years. The Governor, Attorney General, and the Secretary of State make up the board deciding the boundaries. The two other officials on the board will be wanting Asa’s goodwill as they run for office next year. We know from the redistricting in 2010, sometimes legislators who don’t toe the line set by a governor have the boundaries of their districts redrawn to cut out areas where they have run the strongest. If the Governor thinks a legislator is not a team player (his team) the legislator might find himself in a substantially new district and perhaps find himself in a district where another incumbent running.
So… concerning the majority vote required to override a governor’s veto… don’t cry for Governor Hutchinson or the next governor because the imbalance of power is heavily in favor of governors.
[i] In the balance, unbalanced, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 03/07/2021