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State Senate hires lawyer, considers suing Corbett

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 10:42 p.m.

Senate Republicans considering legal action against Gov. Tom Corbett have retained outside counsel over a line-item veto of $7.2 million in legislative-designated spending.

At issue is whether the veto, coupled with the governor's $65 million reduction to the Legislature's budget, is constitutional. This week, they hired Steve MacNett, former general counsel for Senate Republicans, at $375 per hour.

“We thought it was worthwhile to retain MacNett to give further input and explore different potential alternatives or remedies,” said Drew Crompton, chief counsel for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County.

MacNett, who retired in 2011, won a previous line-item veto lawsuit against Gov. Ed Rendell, said Crompton, who was involved in the case.

Stacey Witalec, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said the caucus was aware of the majority's actions.

“We know and trust Steve MacNett,” she said.

Corbett, a first-term Republican, announced the vetoes when he signed the $29.1 billion spending plan July 10. He cited the Republican-controlled Legislature's lack of action on pension reform proposals and its $150 million reserve fund that could be put toward operations this year.

That day, Senate leaders called the $7.2 million fiscal code veto unprecedented, and “likely unconstitutional.”

The Pennsylvania State Constitution grants the governor power to line-item veto, or “blue-line,” appropriations. But the $7.2 million reduction applied to a bill called the fiscal code that directs spending — not the state budget bill itself. The code is often compared to an instruction sheet, where lawmakers prescribe spending on certain studies, purchases or programs.

Crompton said the veto could set a dangerous precedent of blue-lining content and purpose in other bills.

“This fight really is about the balance of power,” he said, “and the ability to utilize this action on behalf of the executive branch to do something further in additional bills down the road.”

The governor's office called the fiscal code eliminations “earmarks.” The largest piece was $5 million funneled to the Department of General Services designated for legislative parking costs. Other cuts included the $850,000 from the Department of Environmental Protection and $300,000 to the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, Pittsburgh's state-appointed financial overseer.

Joshua Maus, spokesman for the governor's Office of General Counsel, said the governor “clearly has constitutional authority to line-item veto any bill that makes an appropriation of money,” and did so in this case to balance the budget.

The Legislature can override a line-item veto with a two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Crompton said while that could be an option, it could “cement the legitimacy” of the line-item veto on fiscal codes or otherwise.

Steve Miskin, spokesman, for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, said the caucus was aware of the Senate's intentions to seek outside legal advice and is reviewing its options.

“There are legitimate questions,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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