Under the 1777 Constitution the governor and council lacked a veto over legislation and were restricted to perusing bills and proposing amendments (Chap. II, Sec. XIV). Lacking a separation of powers clause, the constitution offered few explicit limits to legislative authorities.
The 1786 Constitution added a separation of powers clause (Chap. II, Sec. VI): “The Legislative, executive, and judiciary departments, shall be separate and distinct, so that neither exercise the powers properly belonging to the other.”
The 1786 Constitution sought to balance, as well as separate, the branches of government and gave the governor and council the additional power of temporarily suspending legislation. If the governor and council’s proposed amendments were not adopted, “it shall be in the power of the Governor and Council to suspend passing of such bills until the next session of the Legislature.”
The new section also provided that if the governor and council “shall neglect or refuse to return any such bill to the Assembly, with written proposals of amendment, within five days, or before the rising of the Legislature, the same shall become a law” (Chap. II, Sec. XVI).
The rationale for executive review was the same in 1777 and 1786: to provide a mechanism through which laws “may be more maturely considered” prior to enactment to prevent “the inconvenience of hasty determinations.”
By the 1820s both the role of the governor and council and the effectiveness of a limited check upon hasty legislation were questioned. The constitutional question of whether a suspended bill could go into effect the following year without further executive perusal led to an increasingly nasty disagreement between the two branches. In 1826 the governor and council resolved that no bill, including any previously suspended, could go into effect without executive approval. The House passed a counter resolution asserting its right to pass such a bill without the concurrence of the governor and council. The House argued that the constitution did not grant the executive branch any legislative authority.
Dueling resolutions followed threatening the withholding of bills and other confrontations. (For a discussion of the debate over the authority of the governor and council and discussion of the proposed amendments, see Paul S. Gillies and D. Gregory Sanford, Records of the Council of Censors (Montpelier: Secretary of State, 1991), 295-297 and 376-77).
The issue remained unresolved in 1835 and the Council of Censors used the conflict to propose constitutional amendments abolishing the executive council, creating a state senate, and providing a gubernatorial veto (councils of censors had been proposing a senate as a check on the house since 1793). These proposals were ratified in 1836. Governors now possessed a clear veto, with the new bicameral legislature needing a majority vote of both houses to override. Veto messages had to be in writing and were sent to the house from which the bill originated. Legislative votes had to be by roll call, with the yeas and nays of each member entered in the journal.
The new veto authority (now found as Chap. II, Sec. 11) also created the “pocket veto,” the ability of a governor to kill a bill received after legislative adjournment, by not signing it into law. The new language was designed to prevent the general assembly from adjourning before a governor could veto a bill. It qualified the existing provision that a bill would take effect, without a governor's signature, five days after it was sent to the executive. “If any bill shall not be returned by the Governor, as aforesaid, within five days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the same shall become law, in like manner, as if he had signed it; unless the two Houses, by their adjournment, within three days after the presentment of such bill, shall prevent its return; in which case, it shall not become law.”
The first veto occurred in 1839 and from that date through 1913 there were forty-seven vetoes. The second veto, issued in 1845, was overridden.
The only other override prior to 1913 came in 1900. In 1910 a constitutional amendment was proposed to raise the override threshold from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority of those present. That amendment was ratified in 1913 (currently found in Chap. II, Sec. 11).