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Court invalidates Tom Corbett's 2014 line-item spending vetoes

| Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017, 9:24 p.m.
Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett

HARRISBURG — It's not enough for Pennsylvania governors to send out news releases when they are vetoing bills during a legislative adjournment, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday; they also have to issue formal public notices.

The justices sided with three top state Senate leaders of both parties in ruling that partial vetoes of appropriations and Fiscal Code amendment bills by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in 2014 were invalid.

The court said the vetoes failed because Corbett did not specify that he had filed the bills and his objections in the secretary of state's office. The court also said the veto announcements during adjournment must bear hallmarks of formality, such as the governor's seal.

“Formality is a critical tool in distinguishing political rhetoric and advocacy in its myriad forms from public notice of a constitutionally or legally significant declaration,” wrote Justice David Wecht for the majority. “Such formality cannot be abandoned.”

The court did not, however, decide what was the most closely watched part of the case — whether Corbett's use of the line-item veto for the Fiscal Code amendments was within his authority.

Senate lawyers had argued the Fiscal Code amendments, often a grab-bag of unrelated provisions, had to be vetoed en masse or not at all.

Corbett vetoed salaries and personal expenses of Senate employees, furniture and technology upgrades and $500,000 for Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County.

The news release from Corbett's budget office when he issued the line-item veto noted the General Assembly had increased its own budget and criticized lawmakers for inaction on pension reform and for “forcing local school districts to raise property taxes,” Wecht wrote.

Drew Crompton, the top aide to Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, one of the three leaders who sued, welcomed the ruling and said he did not believe the passage of time prevents the money from being restored.

He said he looks forward to discussing the case with the administration and determining “if an accord can be reached that the funds would be used for an initiative benefiting the commonwealth.”

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said the administration's lawyers are reviewing the decision. A spokeswoman for Treasurer Joe Torsella, a Democrat, also said a review Is underway.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, another plaintiff, said the unresolved issue of the line-item veto of the Fiscal Code was unquestionably the central issue in the case.

“Does this governor have to honor the expenditures of the Fiscal Code? That's a great question,” Costa said. “Because the governor didn't properly do the veto, the whole veto is void.”

A decision two years ago by a lower court had said the Fiscal Code amendments were a type of appropriations bill, and therefore were subject to the governor's line-item veto power.

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