Gov. Bill Haslam wisely waited until the day after 107th General Assembly had permanently adjourned to announce he was for the first time exercising a right granted by the state constitution to act as judge, jury and executioner of legislative acts.
Actually, the governor only rarely is assured of executioner status. But Haslam has it with the veto of a bill that would outlaw Vanderbilt University’s “all-comers” policy.
As Haslam has noted in explaining why he didn’t veto other stuff, a gubernatorial veto can be overriden by a simple majority of the Legislature. The “all-comers” bill passed 19-12 in the Senate; 61-22 in the House.
At the federal level and in many states, a two-thirds majority is required to override, which in this case means a repeat of the original vote on an override effort would have meant sustaining the veto. Not so in Tennessee.
In this respect, we have a constitutionally weak governor. Except in the rare situation that now exists at the end of a biennial session.
Had Haslam announced his intentions a day earlier, with the Legislature still in session, a big squabble would have been likely. Bill backers, given the religious fervor with which the bill was pushed, would probably have pushed for a special “veto override” session.
That practice calls for the Legislature, instead of adjourning permanently, or “sine die” in legislator lingo, would have recessed with a scheduled return in a couple of weeks for one day. The governor must sign or veto a bill — or let it become law without his signature — within 10 days after it reaches his desk. By failing to schedule a special session, legislators can’t override the veto.
Ergo, the governor’s veto is absolute. The same applies to any other bills reaching the governor’s desk from the last-days flood of legislating. He can also use a line-item veto to scrap anything in the $31 billion state budget that he doesn’t like.
Under recent governors, special override sessions have typically been held when the governor is a member of one party and a majority of legislators of the other. When Republican Lamar Alexander was governor and a majority of legislators Democratic, for example, there were override sessions.
When Democrat Ned McWherter took over, the override sessions ended. McWherter, a former House speaker who knew the Legislature inside and out, ruled as something of a benevolent dictator. He never issued a veto — with the exception of once when legislators asked him to do so as the only way of correcting a mistake — because legislators never did anything against his wishes.
Today, we again have one-party rule, but the situation is not analogous. In his first year as governor, Haslam, a novice to state government, signed everything the Legislature sent him — and he, in turn, sent them very little. In the executive branch-versus-legislative-branch power balance, things shifted to the Legislature. This year, they have shifted back toward the executive.
Haslam began the session by sending the Legislature 55 bills, a big jump from year one. Forty-five of them passed, including measures that broadened executive authority by giving the governor more authority over boards and commissions and virtually complete control of hiring and firing state employees.
Further, the governor has discovered the Republican legislators can do things he doesn’t like. Now, with the session over, he has finally decided to do something about it.
Ergo, the governor has decided to assert his constitutional authority. The Legislature, at the moment, has decided to abandon its authority to override.
Asked about this at an end-of-the-session news conference with the governor on the night of adjournment, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said they would just accept any vetoes.
While not comparable to the McWherter era, today’s situation may be similar to that of the Buford Ellington era. In the old days, the Legislature served basically as a rubber stamp for the governor until a move toward legislative independence rose in the 1960s.
We certainly haven’t reached anywhere near the rubber-stamp point yet in the new normal. But if we’re going to avoid it in the future, it just might be a good idea for both the executive and the legislative branches to function as the state constitution intended.