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June 20, 2018

Guest View: James C. Sheehan – Line item veto would bring balance to state’s budget process

The author, James C Sheehan, is a state senator, representing Narragansett and North Kingstown. He resides in North Kingstown.

As this year’s legislative session draws to a close, I would like to draw your readers’ attention to an issue that has been bandied about for some time now without any sort of resolution — the line item veto.

Like the president, every state governor possesses the power to veto legislation that the chief executive may find objectionable. The legislature, in turn, has the power to override the veto — in most states — with a two-thirds majority. It’s all part of an intricate system of necessary checks and balances among the three branches of government.

But most states — 44 to be exact — make use of the line item veto, at least for the state budget. It’s a tool the governor can use to make more surgical objections to the state budget by pointing out a single, questionable line item without having to veto the entire budget. Rhode Island is one of the six states that does not have the line item veto system.

A line item veto would bring a greater focus to the annual budget debate, bringing greater accountability to the governor and the General Assembly, as well as each of its individual members. That’s why I — along with several other colleagues — have introduced legislation that calls for a constitutional amendment that would bring the line item veto to Rhode Island. Like all constitutional changes, it would be ultimately up to the people to decide.

The line item veto would give the governor the power to reduce or even eliminate wasteful spending or other poorly-conceived line items on a case-by-case basis, rather than the current system, which is an all-or-nothing proposition. Sometimes these items are referred to as pork barrel spending, earmarks or special interest legislation which are tucked into the budget like the proverbial skunk hiding in the wood pile.

A line item veto leaves our elected officials with nowhere to hide, because it allows the governor to shine a light on one particularly egregious example of bad item, rather than have to consider the budget as a whole. That brings about a greater sense of balance of power between the executive branch and the legislative branch of our government by giving the governor the power to better check the oversized authority of the General Assembly in its role in shaping state policy through the budgetary process.

In short, the line item veto is one of the most commonsense, intellectually honest tools to the problem of wasteful spending — so much so that 44 out of the 50 states have already made it public policy. Whether it be the legislation I have introduced or one of the versions submitted by my colleagues, the time has come to grant this power to the governor.

This is more than just giving more power to the governor, it’s about introducing a new system of fiscal accountability that the people of Rhode Island deserve. Just the mere existence of a line item veto would force legislators to think twice about the way expenditures will be perceived when put under an executive microscope. And that’s good for everybody. It’s better for the governor. It’s better for the legislature. And it’s better for the people of Rhode Island.

And make no mistake, the General Assembly would retain its right to override any veto with a supermajority vote in both houses.  But without those specific objections on behalf of the governor, it’s far too easy for unnecessary and at times even ridiculous expenditures to get through.

It is my sincere hope that not only will my legislative colleagues agree that the time has come to put this question on the ballot, but when it happens that the people of Rhode Island will join us in amending our constitution.

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