by Charles N. Wheeler III
When Gov. Rod Blagojevich unveiled his “Rewrite To Do Right” campaign last month, the temptation was to see the governor’s latest public relations brainchild as just another way of sticking a finger into House Speaker Michael Madigan’s eye.
Blagojevich promised to issue amendatory vetoes to 50 pending bills “to make them better” and force lawmakers to accept ideas that didn’t make it through the normal legislative process.
“Unfortunately, Mike Madigan has decided to oppose every initiative we propose,” Blagojevich told reporters in Chicago. “What are you supposed to do to do right by the people?”
To label the new initiative as simply the latest chapter in the ongoing Blagojevich-Madigan hostilities is understandable. After all, the governor has spent much of his second term berating his fellow Chicago Democrat for not going along with the chief executive’s pet ideas. Moreover, the new gambit comes with a headline-grabbing nickname and populist rhetoric, Blagojevich trademarks.
Underlying whatever personal animosity that lies behind the 50-bill scheme, though, is a serious constitutional question that predates the current chief executive by decades: How far may a governor go in rewriting legislation?
The Illinois Constitution simply declares that a governor “may return a bill together with specific recommendations for change” that becomes law if accepted by majority votes in both chambers. Lawmakers also may override the amendatory veto by three-fifths votes. If they do neither, the measure dies.
The Illinois Supreme Court has suggested that a governor can’t substitute an entire new bill via amendatory veto, nor change its “fundamental purpose,” nor make “substantial or expansive” revisions to a measure. But a governor is not limited merely to correcting errors, as some of the Constitution’s drafters expected, and voters turned down a 1974 amendment that would have so limited the power. Still, the justices have yet to find an instance in which a governor went too far, and no clear guidelines have emerged from the four cases testing the provision.
Madigan’s concern about former Gov. Jim Thompson’s prolific use of the veto pen led the House speaker to engineer a 1989 revision in House rules intended to limit a governor’s ability to make drastic changes in legislation. Under the revamp, still in effect today, before a sponsor can seek approval for an amendatory veto, the House Rules Committee must decide that the proposed changes do not alter the bill’s fundamental purpose and are limited to the governor’s objections to portions of a bill whose general merits he recognizes. Senate rules have included similar provisions since 2003.
Ironically, Madigan supported the amendatory veto concept as a delegate to the convention that drafted the 1970 Constitution, a decision he later conceded was a mistake.
During debate last month, some lawmakers invited a constitutional test as the House accepted the governor’s first couple of rewrites. One would increase the homestead exemption for disabled veterans to $1 million, effectively exempting most from property taxes, by adding language to a bill that originally changed the terms for a downstate redevelopment project. The other would rewrite a measure intended to allow some students with health problems to remain on their parents’ health insurance. The change would require insurance companies to offer dependent coverage in some cases up to age 30. While one could argue neither alters the underlying bill’s fundamental purpose, both appear to make substantial changes and to expand the scope of the initial measures dramatically. Of course, the state Supreme Court would have the final word on whether they go too far, and only if a court challenge is filed.
Also worth noting is that despite the current buzz, Blagojevich has used the amendatory veto less frequently than his predecessors — and with a much poorer rate of success — according to records compiled by the General Assembly’s fact-finding arm, the Legislative Research Unit.
Since 1971, when the current Constitution took effect, the five governors before Blagojevich issued 1,446 amendatory vetoes, roughly 45 a year, according to LRU figures. In his first five years in office, Blagojevich used the power 100 times, an average of 20 a year. Adding in his 50-bill “Rewrite to Do Right” efforts would boost his annual rate to 28, still far short of every other governor but George Ryan, who averaged 19 in his only term. The leader, Thompson, penned some 65 amendatory vetoes a year during his record 14-year tenure, finally prompting Madigan to change the House rules.
Still, the Republican governor won acceptance for more than three-quarters of his revisions, despite facing Democratic majorities in both houses for 12 of his 14 years, and a Democratic Senate with a GOP House the other two.
Lawmakers overrode 63 of his proposed changes — roughly 7 percent — the highest rejection rate of any of the five earlier chief executives. Overall, the quintet pushed through roughly 73 percent of their amendatory vetoes, usually with the opposition party controlling at least one legislative house.
Blagojevich, in contrast, won legislative approval for only 21 of his 100 amendatory vetoes in his first five years, a success rate of 21 percent, by far the lowest of any governor since the rewrite power was enacted. Perhaps most notable among them was his 2003 effort to beef up ethics legislation, although legislators enacted still tougher provisions in a follow-up measure.
Lawmakers overrode 40, while an additional 39 died, meaning failure 79 percent of the time. His luck improved this year, however, with lawmakers backing three of the four he issued before the current blitz, including one that added free rides for seniors to the mass transit bailout approved in January.
Perhaps most startling, Blagojevich’s dismal record comes despite Democratic majorities in both chambers since his 2003 inauguration. As the verbiage accompanying his “Rewrite” campaign makes clear, though, working with fellow Democrats is not the governor’s strong suit.
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Illinois Issues, September 2008