Use of the Veto

Vetoes tend to fall within three categories: defective or hasty legislation, constitutional violations, or general policy disagreements.

Governors frequently use the original rationale for vetoes, avoiding hasty or defective legislation. Veto messages carefully suggested that legislators might have overlooked a particular consequence of a bill's language. The 1870 veto of a bill setting the State Treasurer's salary noted that the pay of state officers had been enacted through another bill. The 1917 veto of House bill entitled “An Act to reorganize the state board of health” pointed out it inadvertently omitted existing statutory language. A 1917 veto of a militia act noted that it was identical to a bill already enacted. More recently, a 1994 veto of a mobile home sewer system bill cited the lack of testimony taken on the issue.

Early vetoes often addressed special acts, notably acts of incorporation — until 1913 the General Assembly possessed the constitutional authority to create private corporations. Many of the vetoes objected to open-ended powers granted a particular corporation or to provisions that disadvantaged creditors.

Vetoes referencing constitutional problems were slow to emerge. The first direct reference to a constitutional flaw was the 1869 veto of a water ditch bill that cited Chap. I, Art. 2nd concerns. The second constitutional reference was the 1880 veto of the state’s attorney bill that cited Chap. I, Art. 10th. These two articles were cited again in 1884 (Springfield village highway bill, Art. 2nd) and 1886 (scientific temperance, Art. 10th). The 1886 veto of the Newport listers bill cited separation of powers (Chap. II, Sec. 5). The 1910 veto of the state board of health bill provided the first reference to the U.S. Constitution (14th Amendment).Constitutional reference became more common in the 20th century. In the 1980s and 1990s policy differences, not constitutional concerns, were increasingly cited as the basis for vetoes.

Governor Richard Snelling provides examples of the veto as a policy tool. An opponent of state-sanctioned gambling throughout his career, he vetoed two gambling related bills (1978 and 1991). He also opposed raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 on the grounds that it established classes of citizens and vetoed two such bills (1982 and 1983).

Governor Howard Dean, who has used the veto to a greater extent than any previous governor, primarily cited policy as the basis for his actions. His 1993 veto of a paving bill cited his policy of fiscal restraint, while his 1994 veto of municipal enforcement of motor vehicles laws was on the grounds that the bill created “a public policy dilemma” he could not support.

These classes of vetoes are not firm and often a governor would cite several factors. Governor Allen Fletcher's 1913 veto of a sterilization bill was based on both constitutional and policy grounds. It is perhaps worth noting that Vermont finally adopted a sterilization law in 1931, illustrating that vetoes are still more of a suspension, than an end, to policy enactments.

Whatever the motive, the veto has proved an effective executive tool. Only eight vetoes have been overridden. Governor Howard Dean (1991-2003) issued 21 vetoes. Governor Jim Douglas issued 17 vetoes as of June 2009. Governors Richard Snelling (1977-85; 1991), Madeleine Kunin (1985-91), and John Mead (1910-12) are tied for third, with eight apiece.

It should be noted that governors might stop short of the veto, allowing a bill to become law without signing it. See, for example, Gov. Snelling's refusal to sign H. 596 of 1991 (House Journal, 1991, pp. 890-891). In 2005 the Governor and legislative leaders agreed to call a Special Session to rework the budget rather than having the governor veto the budget passed during the regular session.

Among the areas that need further study is an overview of how the general assembly viewed the status of a vetoed bill. Was the legislature simply voting to override a veto of a bill it had already passed, or was it voting on the bill de nova, as if it had never before passed the legislature? This issue was raised in 1911 when a majority of those present in the house voted to override the veto of a tax bill. The speaker ruled that despite the majority vote, the veto was sustained. His ruling, upheld by a vote of the house, was based on Chap. II, Sec. 14 of the Constitution, which required two-thirds of the house members to be present for votes on measures raising taxes. Since two-thirds of the members were not present at the time of the override vote, the speaker ruled the bill did not pass. His ruling treated the vetoed tax bill as a new bill subject to the two-thirds quorum, not the simple majority then required for a veto override.

In a somewhat related case, in 2000 the general assembly reconvened to address a veto. Rather than voting on the veto, the legislature drafted a new bill that met the governor's objections from the veto. The issue came up again in 2009 when the governor vetoed the budget bill and then had to call a special session in order to have a budget enacted before the start of the fiscal year. While the rules adopted by the legislature for the special session followed the usual language that all bills introduced would be treated as new bills, a “not-withstanding” clause was added allowing the general assembly to address bills from the biennial session, including the vetoed budget (H. 441). The veto was overridden and H. 441 became Act No. 1 of the special session.

The override of the budget veto, coupled with the override of Governor Douglas’s veto of the civil marriage bill, marked the first time a governor had had two vetoes overridden.

This page was last updated: 2018-02-13