Gov. Matt Mead has used his veto to check legislative overreach and to strike down poorly written laws, he said Monday.
Mead described his vetoes during the 2018 legislative session — the last he’ll oversee as governor — as consistent with this philosophy and his application of the executive prerogative throughout his eight-year tenure.
The process begins well before legislation reaches his desk, the governor told WyoFile in an interview. As legislative sessions began, Mead’s staff divided bills by subject matter and assigned them to the appropriate policy advisors for tracking.
“Some we have an idea are going to be big in the sense that they might be controversial,” Mead said. Others are less anticipated. Like many legislative observers, the governor was at times unaware of bills brought by individual lawmakers until they became public in the days or weeks before a session, he said.
Senate File 74 was one such surprise this year, Mead said. The bill would have increased penalties for protesters impeding energy and other industrial infrastructure as well as the organizations supporting them. It died following Mead’s veto.
The governor has three days to consider three options once a bill passes both chambers of the Legislature. He can sign the bill into law — frequently done in the capitol building as the bill’s sponsors crowd in for a photo. He can take no action, and allow a bill to become law without his signature. Or he can veto the bill — either in its entirety or by striking particular elements — tossing it back to the waiting lawmakers who can attempt to override his decision with a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
This year, the critical infrastructure bill is the only one Mead vetoed in its entirety. Lawmakers tried and failed to override it.
Lawmakers also failed to override any of Mead’s line-item vetoes in the budget bill. It is only the second time in his tenure lawmakers have tried and failed to override Mead’s budget vetoes, according to a WyoFile analysis.
Outspoken fiscal conservative and longtime lawmaker Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) criticised Mead’s approach, saying he has used his veto authority frequently, mostly to grow government by blocking spending cuts.
But as the 2018 session wound to a close and lobbyists and lawmakers waited for the governor’s action on controversial legislation, several observers described Mead as deliberate when considering vetoes.
Mead agrees with that characterization.
“You have to pick your battles because it’s a remarkable authority that’s given to the executive branch,” Mead said. “If used in not a thoughtful way, not only are we more likely to have vetoes overridden, but also you’re not picking what you think is the most important battle you want to win.”
Budget overrides fail
Lawmakers defeated Mead’s budget-line-item vetoes like clockwork during the 2017 legislative session. The House voted to override six out of six times, though the Senate only followed suit on four of those.
This year, not a single budget bill override attempt succeeded in the House, denying the Senate a chance to try its hand.
Most significantly, the House failed to reverse the governor’s removal of a 50-positions cut of state government, which would have garnered around $7.5 million in savings. Mead would have had to cut the positions in increments — cutting 12 positions or their funding equivalent in the first six months, 13 positions or their equivalent in the next six months, and so on.
But Mead rejected the measure, calling it an overreach by the Legislature into staffing decisions that should be left to the executive branch. Lawmakers should decide how much money they want to give to any given initiative or agency, Mead said, but not dictate decisions over how many employees are needed to achieve goals.
“I’ve had this discussion for over seven years with the Legislature,” Mead said on Monday. “I think you’re bleeding the legislative work over into the executive branch and I think there has to be concern about that.”
If lawmakers want to cut government, Mead said, they should just lower budgets and let the executive branch work out how to spend the money it receives.
“If they wanted to make cuts in terms of dollars, than they say ‘instead of $100,000 you get $75,000 — go figure it out,’” he said.
Joint Appropriations Committee lawmakers, on the other hand, have argued largely the opposite. Throughout the session, the budget writers urged colleagues to resist across-the-board cuts — 2 percent off the top of each agency’s budget, for example.
The JAC prefers to let the executive branch find precision cuts, House Appropriations Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) said during the session. Lawmakers who only meet for a few months each year aren’t as conscious of which position might cause undue harm to government function if they were eliminated, he said.
Last year, Mead attempted to veto a similar mandate to cut 90 positions. The House and Senate both overrode him by large margins. This year, however, the House fell short of the 40 votes needed 33-22.
To Mead, the failed override meant his messages about legislative overreach into agency management and the tightness of budgets had finally sunk in, he said.
Senator Scott, however, saw, the House’s decision as “a symptom that the House had relaxed its vigilance on the issue of spending,” he said.
For House Majority Floor Leader David Miller (R-Riverton) it was a symptom of the session’s late conclusion.
“I thought we’d override something,” Miller said. “I think the hour of the game, the extended extra days, everyone was starting to get sort of burned out.”
Scott also pushed back on Mead’s concerns about legislative overreach. “He wants to spend the money, it’s as simple as that,” the senator said. Throughout his tenure, Mead has been “very adept at vetoing things to increase spending,” Scott said.
Mead disagreed. While lawmakers have made budget cuts over the last few years, he has made more — specifically cutting $250 million as mineral revenues plummeted in the summer of 2016.
“In my time in office … the biggest cuts have come from the executive branch,” Mead said.
This year, the Legislature spent more money than the governor had recommended in his budget. Legislators’ spending was driven-up in part by requests from the Department of Health for immediate money to cover cost overruns that came in after the governor submitted his budget. Lawmakers also spent more on state building projects than the governor had suggested.
Scott: Not signing bills “a feeble protest”
Mead also let several bills become law without his signature this year — including a much-watched “stand your ground” bill and one regarding the medical use of cannabinoid oils derived from the marijuana plant. His reasons varied.
The cannabinoid oil bill would have allowed medical hemp extract users who are disabled and dependent on a parent to continue receiving the drug after age 18 without having to renew their license on their own.
It was “a very narrow, narrow bill that provided for a small amount of people,” said Miller, the House Majority Leader and the bill’s sponsor. Still, he wasn’t surprised the governor didn’t sign it, he said.
“He probably doesn’t sign anything with hemp or marijuana associated with it,” Miller said.
Mead confirmed that suspicion. “I haven’t signed those,” the governor said. “I want Wyoming to be very cautious because in my view we don’t want to go into legalization of marijuana.”
By not signing a bill, Mead lets it become law but draws attention, he hopes, to his concerns about legislations’ possible impacts.
“I understand why people are thinking that is needed for medical treatment,” he said, “but I think a word of caution is necessary.”
Mead also did not sign the session’s most controversial gun bill, a “stand your ground law” that proponents said strengthened Wyoming’s self-defense laws but which opponents called unnecessary, confusing and driven by the gun lobby.
The days Mead spent considering the bill were filled with intense lobbying from both sides. The advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety took out full page ads in Wyoming’s major newspapers as well as banner ads on the newspapers’ websites calling on Mead to veto the bill.
Bill proponent Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) reacted on social media, asking voters to call the governor and urge him to sign the bill. “Michael Bloomberg, billionaire Bloomberg is now running full page ads in the newspaper,” he told his followers on Facebook, providing a phone number for the governor. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is a board member of Everytown for Gun Safety and used his money to found the group, according to a March 2014 press release.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Dubois) said Mead’s lack of a signature on the bill was somewhat disappointing, but came as a result of the political divide on the legislation. The governor did not veto the bill because of the support it received in the Legislature, where it passed with wide margins, and from constituents around the state, Salazar said.
“I would have preferred that he sign the bill but I understand that there were competing political pressures on both sides of the issue,” Salazar said.
Scott said he supported the gun bill following amendments made to it in the Senate. “Oh that’s just a feeble protest,” he said of the gubernatorial practice of allowing a bill become law without a signature.
While a mild hiccup for lawmakers like Salazar and Bouchard who brought the legislation, the unsigned law is a frustrating finish for those who opposed it. Tom Jubin, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association who opposed the bill, said the final product was better than the initial bill but was still concerning.
“It muddies the waters because we had such nice clear law that says when you could use self defense,” he said. Though the governor didn’t endorse the bill with his pen, Wyoming is now a “stand your ground state” all the same, he said.
“Now we can say we’ve got a ‘stand your ground’ law even if we can say it confused existing law that allowed you to stand your ground,” Jubin said.
On infrastructure bill, Mead reaches back to law school days
In his letter to the Senate explaining his veto of the critical infrastructure bill, Mead did not cite the free speech concerns raised by bill opponents, focusing instead on what he called “flawed” statutory language. On Monday, he said the goal of protecting infrastructure was important for Wyoming.
“The opportunity for first amendment, legal protest is important,” Mead said. “But I distinguish that from if hypothetically you’re hiring people to go damage property and put people in danger.” The statement echoed arguments made by SF-74’s supporters.
Mead delivered the veto about four hours before the midnight deadline on the third day.
“I probably spent at least three hours trying to read it and write down what it means … going back to my law school statutory construction days,” Mead said. He met with both bill proponents and opponents and lobbying groups on both sides, the governor said. The bill was modeled after legislation posted on the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national coalition of industries including fossil fuel extractors and other infrastructure companies. In Wyoming, it had pitted environmental, Native American and free speech advocates against business lobbies, law enforcement groups and county commissioners, amongst others.
The bill’s definitions of critical infrastructure were too crowded and the language lacked precision, Mead said. “Perhaps it had too many cooks in the kitchen,” he said. The criminalizing of “impeding” critical infrastructure also struck Mead as too vague, he said.
Mead compared SF-74 to Wyoming’s “data trespass” law. The Legislature passed the law to ban the use of data collected via trespass in 2015 despite concerns about a chilling effect on free speech. Mead signed that legislation. It remains challenged in court today.
“I think [the data trespass law] was put out there with good intentions,” Mead said, “but because it had some obvious legal problems in it you see what happened. And then … at the end of the day, have we advanced a cause or have we hurt it by not putting out good legislation?”
Mead also said SF-74 had in fact not done enough to protect critical infrastructure, by not including infrastructure under construction. As written, he said, it wasn’t clear the bill would have protected a pipeline before it was completed. Some bill proponents had cited concerns about the Dakota Access pipeline protests in North Dakota — where protestors sought to halt pipeline construction — as a reason for the bill.
“I don’t think the proponents got what they wanted to get,” Mead said, “and I think because of the loose way it was worded it concerned both environmental groups and people who wanted to make sure first amendment rights were not being infringed upon.”
Mead’s veto had an effect on the House. Eleven lawmakers who had voted for the bill’s passage voted against the override. Several cited the governor’s points in interviews after the vote.
Veto legacy to be decided
Mead said he could never be certain how a bill would play out as law. “The courts have the ultimate say, appropriately, on these,” the former prosecutor said.
Thus far, Mead said he did not have regrets about bills he should have vetoed, or not vetoed, during his tenure.
“I guess I’ll reflect upon that question as time passes,” he said, “whether there’s some that I signed that I shouldn’t have or some that I vetoed that maybe I wish I wouldn’t have … I don’t think there is on the veto side.”