A state law that enabled the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee to block a conservation easement along the Pelican River, shown here, is unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday(Jay Brittain | Courtesy of the photographer)

Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision in Evers v. Marklein ends Republican ‘pocket veto’

by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
July 5, 2024

MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers issued a statement today praising a decision from the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Evers v. Marklein. that effectively ends the ability of Republicans to use a tactic often refereed to as a pocket veto to limit the Governor’s powers. Most recently that tactic was used to block conservation projects under the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, among other instances.

Wisconsin laws that give the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee the power to block state spending on land conservation projects after the money has been budgeted are unconstitutional, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The 6-1 ruling united two of the Court’s conservative justices with all four of the liberal majority and handed a significant policy victory to the administration of Gov. Tony Evers in the Democratic governor’s lawsuit against Republican lawmakers over so-called “legislative vetoes.”

The ruling focuses on just one of several issues raised in the lawsuit that Evers filed this past October: the finance committee’s actions blocking specific projects that were funded under the state’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

Under the program, created in 1989, the state budget sets aside land for public recreation and conservation. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is budgeted funds every two years to  acquire and develop land and make grants to local governments and nonprofits as well.

Statutes enacted starting in 2007 have given the Joint Finance Committee the power to intervene in specific grants based on location or the amount of money involved. The committee has blocked 27 grants since 2019, Evers’ lawsuit said.

After the committee blocked the most recent high-profile project, setting aside $4 million for a 56,000-acre conservation easement along the Pelican River in Oneida, Forest and Langlade counties, Evers funded the project through a federal program instead.

The Court ruled Friday that the statutes empowering the committee to intervene are unconstitutional.

“While the legislature has the power create an agency, define its powers, and appropriate funds to fulfill the purpose for which the legislature established it, the power to spend appropriated funds in accordance with the law enacted by the legislature lies solely within the core power of the executive to ensure the laws are faithfully executed,” wrote Justice Rebecca Bradley, the opinion’s lead author.

Bradley, a member of the Court’s conservative wing, was joined by Justice Brian Hagedorn, another conservative. Both Bradley and Hagedorn had opposed the original petition from Evers for the high court to bypass lower courts and take the case directly.

All four members of the court’s liberal wing joined the opinion. 

Chief Justice Annette Ziegler, who also opposed the Court’s decision to take the original petition, dissented from Friday’s opinion. “I disagree with rushing to judgment, on this limited issue, taking this case out of turn. There is simply no need,” Ziegler wrote.

Evers cheered Friday’s decision in a statement.

“I’ve spent years working against near-constant Republican obstruction, and this historic decision rightfully resets constitutional checks and balances and restores separation of powers,” he said. “This decision is a victory for the people of Wisconsin, who expect and deserve their government to work — and work for them, not against them.”

The Court’s statement when it took the case said the justices were considering only the issue surrounding the stewardship fund while holding other issues in the Evers lawsuit in abeyance.

This story will be updated. 

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and X.

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