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Governor No: Dayton is poised to claim a spot among the top vetoers in Minnesota history

As of today, Dayton has vetoed 78 bills.

Just this year, Gov. Mark Dayton has issued 17 vetoes.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Your reaction to to Gov. Mark Dayton’s recent decision to veto a whole spate of budget bills passed by the Legislature most likely comes down to politics. Where Republicans see a stubborn obstructionist in the governor’s residence thwarting the will of the duly elected representatives of the people, Democrats see a principled check against the excesses of an ideologically driven legislature.

But whatever your views on whether Dayton’s exercise of his veto power are justified, one fact is indisputable: Dayton has vetoed a lot of bills. How many? Just this year, he’s issued 17 vetoes; that brings his all-time career total to 78 full vetoes (including signed vetoes and vetoes by refusal to sign bills, known as a “pocket veto.”)

Is that a lot? Well, it’s enough to put Dayton squarely in third place among Minnesota governors, based on records from the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library that go back to 1939 (prior to that year, recordkeeping wasn’t as accurate, the library notes). Dayton is still trailing behind his predecessor Tim Pawlenty, who issued 96 vetoes and well behind the veto king, Arne Carlson, who vetoed 127 bills. (Pawlenty and Carlson each served two terms; their rankings as top vetoers do not change when you control for the number of terms served.)

Vetoes by governor, 1939-2017
Some Minnesota governors have used the power of the veto more frequently than others. This chart shows full bills vetoed, including pocket vetoes. It does not include line-item vetoes.
Source: Minnesota Legislative Reference Library

If Dayton wants to claim the top veto spot, he’s got some work to do. It would take an additional 19 vetoes to surpass Pawlenty and a whopping 50 vetoes to unseat Carlson. But there’s still time; the current special session looks set to produce at least one guaranteed veto and possibly many more, and then there’s still the 2018 session of the current Legislature.

But of course, governors don’t issue vetoes in order to get their names in the record books. Rather, there are certain factors — some political, some institutional — that create the right conditions for a big crop of vetoes.

Institutional factors

Perhaps the biggest determinant, and not a terribly surprising one, of the number of vetoes a governor issues is whether or not the state is ruled by divided government, said Andrew Karch, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and an author of “Why do Governors Issue Vetoes,” a 48-state look at gubernatorial vetoes published in Political Research Quarterly in 2008.

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When the legislature and the governor’s office are held by opposing parties, they have different legislative priorities, so you’re likely to see a lot more disagreement manifested in vetoes. Looking back on Minnesota’s history, that seems to be the case.

In bienniums where the legislature and the governor’s office were controlled by members of the same party since 1951, governors averaged four vetoes. In bienniums where there was split control in the House and Senate with a governor from either party, the average was five. When the governor’s office was held by the party opposite the party holding the two legislative bodies, (most of these bienniums occurred during high-veto Carlson, Pawlenty and Dayton’s terms), the average was 28.

Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than when veto gold medalist Carlson was in office. A Republican who had both houses of the legislature controlled by the opposing DFL for the duration of his eight-year term, Carlson’s tenure culminated in 127 full bill vetoes, including pocket vetoes, and 245 lines vetoed from appropriations bills (governors are allowed to veto individual lines of appropriations bills).

The level of conflict between the governor and the legislature frustrated legislators and made commentators apoplectic.

“Carlson’s veto count is the mark of a governor who is prone to prizing conflict too highly, and its resolution not highly enough,” a 1998 opinion piece in the Star Tribune said after Carlson’s last veto, which “felled a bill authorizing a study on the merits of growing industrial hemp in Minnesota.”

But University of Minnesota Regent Steve Sviggum, who was then the minority leader in the House, takes a different view of things.

During Carlson’s term, he said, vetoes were a way for Republicans, in the minority in the House and Senate, to empower one another.

“We did not have the numbers to pass bills … but (because of the veto), we did have the power to become players in the system, players in the decisionmaking, if the governor and the minority Republicans stood together,” he said.

It’s possible that similar dynamics are playing out between DFLers in the minority in the House and Senate and Dayton. Dayton’s veto count was highest in the years Republicans controlled the House and Senate, and lowest when the DFL controlled everything.

Another institutional factor that may be at play for Dayton is his lame duck status. Lame duck governors may be thinking about their legacies, but they don’t have to woo voters to the ballot box again, which can make them more apt to use the veto, Karch said.

That’s a two-way street.

“From the legislature’s perspective (after next year), they’re not going to be having an ongoing working relationship with the current governor,” Karch said.

Some governors, including Al Quie (1979 to 1983), vetoed more legislation at the end of his time in office than at the beginning.

Veto silver medalist Pawlenty issued a lot more vetoes during his second term, when both the House and Senate were controlled by the DFL, than in his first term, when just the Senate was.

Put together, Dayton’s lame duck status and Republican control of the legislature may have pushed the legislature to churn out more legislation they know will be vetoed, and prompted Dayton to veto more of it than he might if he had an election coming up.

Of course, governors in the past were lame ducks facing hostile legislatures, yet the three governors who have issued by far the most vetoes in Minnesota history were relatively recently. So what changed?

More vetoes than ever

The term of DFL governor Karl Rolvaag, for example, was marked by fighting with the conservative-controlled (at the time, Minnesota legislators ran on nonpartisan tickets) Minnesota House and Senate. Rolvaag vetoed 26 bills in his four years in office (he sought re-election but lost the DFL endorsement), compared to 69 in Carlson’s first term with an opposing party in control.

Karch says the dynamics in state politics might be changing.

“It may just simply reflect that politics in Minnesota is in many ways less distinctive than it used to be 20 years ago,” Karch said. “Minnesota was held up as an example of a very moralistic state where there were certain norms and values that many leaders agreed upon that sort of held politics together and pushed people toward — if not a common vision of the public interest — at least a willingness to move along.”

Today, Karch said, party polarization and “a lot of the unwillingness to compromise that we tend to associate with the national level,” seems to be creeping in.

Whatever the underlying dynamics, Sviggum, who was in the rooms where legislative deals were hashed out for years, said vetoes are often misinterpreted as being confrontational in nature: missives from a governor to a legislature with which he just can’t get along.

But Sviggum argues that’s not always the case. Often, vetoes — and the bills that are destined for them — are better characterized as a way for two opposing sides to send messages to one another, he said.

“People are elected to office to represent different values, different constituencies, different positions,” he said.

Only time will tell whether or not Dayton will step down in 2019 with enough vetoes to surpass Pawlenty, or even Carlson’s count. Between divided government, partisan bickering and a governor on the way out of office, history suggests he just might.

“There are a lot of things about the present situation in Minnesota that seem almost tailor-made to generate a lot of vetoes,” Karch said.