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King Edward I

| Thursday, Oct. 27, 2005

Lost amid the furor over the pay grab and such high-profile issues as tax reform is a titanic battle -- the outcome of which could dramatically affect the balance of power between Pennsylvania's legislative and executive branches of government.

At issue is whether or not the governor can "blue-line," or veto, select portions of policy language in an appropriations bill passed by the General Assembly. It is clear that the governor has the authority to line-item veto specifically appropriated dollar amounts. But selectively vetoing the language of an appropriations bill might not pass constitutional muster.

The matter now is being brought to a head by Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer and House Speaker John Perzel. They have a lawsuit pending in Commonwealth Court seeking to have Gov. Ed Rendell's veto of selected language in several recent bills overturned on the grounds that he lacks the constitutional authority.

How a bill is worded can, and usually does, significantly affect the ultimate impact of legislation once it becomes law. There are times where the entire practical outcome of a bill can hinge on just one word. (Think Bill Clinton and the meaning of "is.") Clearly, a governor's unfettered ability to strike language at will out of an already passed law dramatically alters the power relationship between the two branches of government and tilts it strongly in favor of the executive.

In one of the particular bills at issue, Rendell struck language designed to ensure that state tax dollars would not be utilized to pay for abortions and abortion counseling. By striking the language, Rendell single-handedly altered a long-standing policy on one of the most hotly debated and divisive issues of the day. In fact, in his veto message, the governor flatly stated the language was "bad public policy."

A practice that allows a governor -- any governor - to alter after the fact already passed legislation is disturbing enough. But for the governor to exercise a policy veto over appropriations language completely perverts the separation of powers doctrine inherent in the state Constitution.

The Pennsylvania Constitution, which incorporates many of the governmental principles inherent in the U.S. Constitution, was drafted to deliberately make it difficult to enact bills into law in an effort to ensure public input and to restrict government involvement in our lives. That is why certain powers were reserved for the legislative branch and others granted to the executive -- so that neither would gain an undue amount of influence.

The governor has stepped over the line by vetoing policy language in an appropriations bill.

As the court weighs the arguments, it should take into consideration the fact that Rendell's action, gathering unto himself powers not specifically granted to him by the state Constitution, also represents a de facto trampling of the court's own role of being the arbiters of what is constitutional and what is not.

If Rendell is successful in this power grab, Penn's Wood will have come full circle from being the birthplace of independence from King George III to a new monarchy under King Edward I.

Lowman S. Henry is chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research Inc. and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.

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