Past Legal Limits? Governor May Have Overstretched With Veto of High Speed Rail Authority Oversight Provisions

After a year of poor marks and critical reports from the State Auditor, the Legislative Analysis and even UC Berkeley, the High Speed Rail Authority was put on probation like status in the budget the Legislature sent to the Governor earlier this month. However, despite the Authority’s poor performance and the obvious need for state oversight, the Governor line-item vetoed the provisions in the budget that the Legislature had carefully crafted to ensure the Authority did not waste taxpayer dollars. Not only was this action inexplicable considering the fact that the legislature was doing its job and carrying out its oversight responsibility, but a closer look at the Governor’s actions reveal that they actually may not have been legal.

The Governor has the ability to line item veto appropriations in the budget, or even reduce the amount of funding for an item. The Governor can also sign the budget in it entirety or veto the whole measure. However, in a recent court cases challenging the Governor’s prolific veto pen, the California Supreme Court said, “In the context of the constitutionally prescribed budget process, the power to appropriate public funds belongs exclusively to the Legislature. With respect to a bill containing appropriations, the Governor has three options: (1) to sign the bill, (2) to veto the measure in its entirety (Cal. Const., art. IV, § 10, subd. (a)), or (3) to “reduce or eliminate one or more items of appropriation” (id., subd. (e) (hereafter article IV, section 10(e)).

Senator Joe Simitian, who chairs the budget subcommittee that had drafted the oversight provisions and who has taken a leadership role in trying to prevent the High Speed Rail project from become an expensive boondoggle, asked Legislative Counsel to offer a legal opinion on whether or not the Governor’s actions were unconstitutional. Considering the incredible amount of work the Legislature has done over this past year to ensure this project is done right, we are hopeful that if the Governor’s veto can be overturned, the Legislature will take the necessary steps to do so.