Gov. Scott Walker's Secret Weapon: The Wisconsin Veto

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Two weeks into the collective bargaining protests in Madison, the interior of the Wisconsin state Capitol feels like a high-traffic liberal website given physical form. It's a world of text. Sheets of paper are affixed to every reachable surface with little strips of blue non-staining painter's tape. Some pages have slogans markered on them, others have columns of dense printing. "Retired teacher from California supports Wisconsin Workers" "One day longer!" "You can't silence Wisconsin." "Why can't we be friends with benefits?" There's a printout of a George Lakoff article, notices of other protests around the state, a lost-kid board, and a flier for somebody's self-published apocalyptic novel. Ranging up and down both sides of a grand marble staircase are printouts of 10,000 e-mails from Wisconsin citizens to Gov. Scott Walker (R), opposing his proposal to strip collective bargaining rights from public sector workers.

But the boisterous messages hide a sobering reality as the stalemate over Walker's budget repair bill deepens. A deal floated by moderate Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz, under which collective bargaining rights would automatically reactivate in 2013, seems to have drawn no interest from either side. One possible reason: the Wisconsin veto makes such a compromise impossible to enforce.

What most people outside Wisconsin don't know is that our governor wields a veto power on appropriations bills so strong as to be frankly comic. It's not just a line-item veto; Walker has the power to veto individual phrases and words (PDF) -- like "not" -- from sentences. If the state Senate returns to session and passes a bill with time limits on Walker's favored provisions, he can strip out the new language and sign his own decompromised version into law. If that sounds crazy, keep in mind that until 2008 governors of Wisconsin could -- and did! -- veto multi-page sections of bills, leaving in place only eight or nine words spelling out a law the governor wanted to enact. And that, in turn, was a much-narrowed version of the so-called "Vanna White veto" power enjoyed by Wisconsin governors prior to 1990, when they could veto individual letters out of words and individual digits out of numbers.

Even in its defanged state, the partial veto makes it hard for the legislature to talk meaningfully about compromise, on this bill or on controversial legislation still to come.

According to a staffer at the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the legislators are well aware of the partial-veto problem in the current negotiations. Writing a "veto-proof" appropriations bill in Wisconsin is essentially impossible. The Senate could break the collective bargaining provisions off the rest of the bill, making it non-appropriations and thus sheltering it from the governor's black Sharpie -- but that would mean passing a budget repair bill without any mention of collective bargaining at all, a level of independence of which Senate Republicans, with the possible exception of Schultz, have shown no hint. In the end, the Senate would probably have to rely on a handshake agreement with Gov. Walker to leave the bill intact. At this point, what is a handshake from the Governor worth? That depends whether you think the governor would openly defy a bipartisan deal to get his way on collective bargaining. The partial veto is wildly undemocratic, but it's a Wisconsin tradition. I think Walker would probably do it; and it's not clear he would pay any serious political price.

The Democrats, without leverage to move Walker an inch and facing his veto power, benefit the longer their walkabout from the state Senate goes on. The delay has given the public time to digest features of the bill less popular than sticking it to the unions, like a new executive power to sell off the state's power plants in no-bid deals. The unions, for their part, have had time to pivot to a stance that consents to the state's taking a bigger chunk out of public workers' paychecks -- which makes Walker's threat to lay off thousands of state workers, should his further demands not be met, seem less a budgetary necessity and more a political retaliation.

Most importantly, each day of impasse further energizes Democratic voters who didn't show up in 2010 -- and Democrats will need them next cycle. Walker's attempt to kneecap the public sector unions is probably best seen as a way of crimping a reliable source of financial support for future Democratic candidates. The Walker administration seems devoted to placing GOP thumbs on as many electoral scales as is legally permissible. The Wisconsin Troopers Association, which endorsed Walker, was specifically exempted from the budget repair bill, and a new law requiring a photo ID at polling places is expected to depress Democratic turnout in Milwaukee and Madison (student IDs don't cut it, natch). The 2011 legislative redistricting will surely be aimed at consolidating Republican control of the Capitol, as well. The Democrats and the unions may well lose the collective bargaining fight; but they're planning to lose it, if they must, as successfully as possible.

Image credit: Police prepare to take control of the Capitol rotunda after giving a deadline for protestors to leave the building on Feb. 27, 2011 in Madison. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Drop-down bar image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Jordan Ellenberg is Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He writes the "Do the Math" column at Slate, and has written on mathematical topics for the New York Times, Wired, the Washington Post, and the Believer. He blogs at Quomodocumque.

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