It Ain’t Over till the Veto Pen Inks

It Ain’t Over till the Veto Pen Inks

Congratulations are in order for Florida’s Legislature. Barring something most unforeseen, a balanced budget will pass before the final gavel falls this Friday. A session that began with explicit gestures of reconciliation and comity across the Rotunda is almost certain to end on a less effusive but still collegial note.

I think it is fair to say that this outcome puts both the Florida House and the Florida Senate in the “winners” category for this week (again, assuming no surprises Friday!).

As many have noted, it also seems clear that the passage of this budget will put Governor Scott in the “losers’’ category.

The public language of governing generally is more moderate than the language of campaigns. Governing is about working with people, not working them over.

There is plenty of space in chambers for threats and arm twists, as well as for less-than-savory deals to be done. This, too, is part of the process of assembling a majority out of 160 ambitious individuals with both political necessity and political opportunity hounding their every step.

But the public face of the process typically is more courteous, framed in language that leaves rivals and rebels paths back into the fold, even as it may suggest the existence of a hammer held behind the back with one hand as the other is extended in friendship.

Governor Rick Scott is not known for his mastery of this language game. Perhaps it is his professional background as corporate CEO. Perhaps it is just his personality. Whatever the reason, the artful language of legislative gamesmanship does not appear to be the language of his heart.

The Office of Governor in Florida is nothing like that of a corporate CEO, nor that of a strong mayor, nor yet that of the president of the United States. An elected (not appointed) Cabinet shares important executive authority with the governor. On the legislative side, the short span of the career of Florida’s legislators (thanks to term limits) actually may make the state House and Senate better able to wield the legislative hammer than either chamber in D.C.

Arguably, it is in one area, and one area only, that the governor really reigns.

The line item veto.

A Florida governor can veto legislation in its entirety just as the president can. So if Governor Scott doesn’t like the medical marijuana bill that passed this week, he can veto it. The Legislature could return in special session to override such a veto, but that seems unlikely in this hotly contested election year. More likely, advocates simply would opt to make it an issue in some opposing legislators’ races, then take it up again next session. So, generally speaking, a governor’s vetoes at the end of session are likely to be sustained.

But the governor’s greater power lies in the ability to line out specific items in the budget. In most cases, governors target expenditures for specific projects in specific districts, rather than statewide expenditures that affect large numbers of legislators. This allows the governor to punish individually those whose actions have undermined his legislative agenda.

At the level of public discourse, governors have learned to wrap these vetoes in the language of government waste and, at times, implied corruption. By calling them “turkeys” and “special interest projects,” the governor can cloak the entire set of individual vetoes in a thick mantle of legitimacy.

There’s been some suggestion that the relationship between the Legislature and the governor is so bad that, if Governor Scott is too aggressive with the veto pen, the Legislature just might come back in special session to override his actions. But the atmospherics around such a move are essentially all negative. The vetoed projects already will have been painted in special interest terms. Advocates for a special session will risk being splattered by the same brush.

My cloudy crystal ball shows a budget with hundreds of millions of dollars slashed, partially to oppose certain kinds of public expenditures, significantly to send a message to the legislative leadership that even a lame duck governor can stop a legislative train . . . or at least burn out a lot of the cars.

If I’m right, the really interesting question won’t be whether or not the Legislature will come back for a special session. It will be whether the kum ba yah call that brought the two houses together this year will be extended to the Governor’s Office in the next.