Describing the debate as one that “goes to the heart of separation of powers within Texas government,” Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced on Wednesday that he will not authorize disbursing more than $200 million in funds approved by the Texas Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott, instead waiting for the attorney general to settle the issue.
“There are complex questions related to the governor’s vetoes, so I am seeking clarity and requesting guidance from the attorney general’s office,” Hegar said in a statement.
In June, Abbott vetoed $227.6 million from the $209.4 billion two-year state budget. The Legislative Budget Board argued that Abbott had exceeded his constitutional authority because the vetoes targeted budget riders — directives to state agencies that are included in the budget but do not actually make any appropriations. The budget board cited previous court opinions to contend that a governor has the power to veto appropriations, but not riders.
For several weeks, the issue awaited a decision by Hegar, the state’s chief financial officer. The governor’s office strongly disagreed with the budget board, sending a 29-page memo to Hegar decrying the Legislature’s attempt to use “magic words” to block the governor’s authority.
On Wednesday, Hegar said he would not dole out the funds at issue for the time being.
“I am lapsing the funds for all items objected to by the Governor and will treat the items in question as vetoed,” Hegar said. “However, if advised otherwise, those appropriations can be made available immediately.”
The debate over Abbott’s veto power has prompted strong reactions in the highest levels of state government. Abbott’s office claimed “unelected bureaucrats” were interfering with the governor’s constitutional power to strike spending items from the budget. One of the budget board’s co-chairs, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, said in news releases that he also disagreed with the board’s argument — so much so that he wanted a special committee to review the budget board and other legislative agencies. Email traffic between his office, the board and the House speaker’s office made it clear that top Patrick aides had seen the board document and approved sending it to Hegar.
“The Constitution does not give the governor the power to reduce an item; only to veto it,” Hegar wrote in his request for an attorney general's opinion. “Because the governor’s item veto power is limited to ‘items of appropriation,’ the principal debate is over the meaning of that term and whether the provisions purportedly vetoed by the governor are ‘items of appropriation.' ”
At stake in the fight are a wide range of public projects, touching on public education, higher education, health care and criminal justice. The largest item vetoed would have provided $132 million to build a new state office building in San Antonio to replace the G.J. Sutton State Complex.
Hegar’s decision comes less than a week before the start of the fiscal year on Sept 1, when the budget approved by lawmakers this year goes into effect. His 15-page request to Paxton demonstrates the complexity of the dispute. Because Abbott's vetoes targeted budget riders rather than appropriations, Hegar seeks clarity on not only the validity of the vetoes but also what to do about the impacted agencies' budgets if the vetoes are upheld. Should Hegar reduce each agency's budget by the vetoed amount? And if those agencies can still get the funding, can those agencies then choose to spend some of their budgets on the projects Abbott vetoed anyway?
“This is a constitutional issue that goes to the heart of separation of powers within Texas government,” Hegar said. “I have a fiduciary duty to Texas taxpayers to ensure their hard earned dollars are spent in a manner that is consistent with the constitution of the state of Texas.”