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Monday, May 20, 2024
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Assembly Speaker Rep. Robin Vos speaking to members of the press after the 2022 State of the State address.

A conservative law firm helped Robin Vos’ office draft a constitutional amendment to limit Wisconsin governors’ partial veto power

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty helped draft at least two bills spearheaded by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

A conservative law firm helped Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ office draft a potential constitutional amendment late last year to limit the Wisconsin governor’s partial veto power.

Vos, R-Rochester, was “potentially looking” to reintroduce a failed 2019 constitutional amendment to prohibit governors from using partial vetoes to increase state expenditures, according to an Oct. 5 email from Vos policy advisor Abbey Rude. The email was sent to Kyle Koenen, policy director and lobbying principal for the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL). 

Rather than reintroduce the failed constitutional amendment, Koenen helped Vos’ office draft a new partial veto amendment to prohibit Evers and future governors from using the partial veto power to increase any taxes or fees. 

The amendment was approved by the Assembly in February and the Senate in March and must pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions before being brought to voters. Vos was not one of the lawmakers who introduced the resolution.

In an Oct. 9 response to Rude, Koenen said WILL would support the resolution if brought forth but added it may not be broad enough “if one of your goals is to prevent an action like the Governor’s 400-year veto.” Koenen pointed to a policy brief WILL provided to Vos’ office with an alternate option.

The difference between a draft sent by Rude on Dec. 14, 2023 and the final introduced version is in its final clause, which says the governor “may not create or increase any financial expenditure in the enrolled bill” instead of “may not create or increase or authorize the creation or increase of any tax or fee” in the final version.    

A spokesperson for Vos did not immediately return a request for comment.

WILL previously made headlines for high-profile lawsuits challenging diversity, equity and inclusion programs in public higher education, voting drop boxes and redistricted maps. The nonprofit firm has received millions of dollars annually from right-wing donors like the Charles Koch Institute and Bradley Institute, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Koenen declined an interview but said WILL is often asked to comment on legislative proposals. 

“Like many nonprofits, WILL weighs in on legislation that aligns with our mission and guiding principles,” Koenen told The Daily Cardinal. 

Koenen said the organization is happy to work with legislators from either party who are interested in advancing “principles of limited government, separation of powers, free markets and individual liberties.” 

In an interview, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers told the Cardinal he’s “always in favor of making sure things are always transparent” but that WILL’s involvement in creating the policy proposals is part of people weighing in on legislation and “how the system works these days.”

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“They're active in every part of our lives,” Evers said. “It seems like they are the go-to people on any conservative issue, whether it's voting or just about any walk of life.”

Koenen also consulted with a Vos staffer, Moriah Krogstad, to help draft a bill which would prohibit race-based programs in state public higher education, according to an Oct. 20 email from Rude. Rude sent Konen the bill’s co-sponsorship memorandum on Oct. 23.

Evers said he isn’t surprised that Vos is “very close” to WILL and called the nonprofit’s connection to larger national influence groups like the Bradley Foundation “wrongheaded.”

“Frankly, you can see them grow over time. They had a couple of success stories and other large donors got behind them, and suddenly they're this powerhouse,” Evers said. “Right now I think they have national prominence, and God help us.”

Evers called the bill banning race-based programs in state higher education “idiotic” and said he would veto it if it passed through the Senate.

Wisconsin governors have unusually expansive partial veto powers compared to other states. They can strike through numbers, letters and punctuation in budget bills to change amounts and effects. 

Evers made headlines last July after using a partial veto to increase K-12 public school district revenue ceilings by $325 per student annually for the next 402 years. Attorneys for Wisconsin’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, asked the state Supreme Court to strike down Evers’ K-12 partial veto in a lawsuit filed Monday.

Some Republican legislators argue the partial veto allows the governor to act in a legislative capacity and breaches the separation of powers.

Evers defended his partial veto use and said WILL is at “the core” of efforts to strip power from the executive and make the Legislature — and Assembly Speaker — more powerful.

“I did nothing wrong, for starters,” Evers said. “It's an appropriate part of the executive branch's ability to do their job.”

He said an increasing Republican use of constitutional amendments, like recently approved changes to how state elections are administered, are “power grabs” and meant to avoid a veto Republicans couldn’t surmount. 

Those debates are currently playing out in a state Supreme Court lawsuit as Evers and Republicans on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee clash over so-called “committee vetoes” to block executive branch decisions.

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Liam Beran

Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.

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