When Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Cristina Garcia’s bill last week to eliminate the sales tax on tampons and other feminine hygiene products in California, the Bell Gardens assemblywoman first took to Twitter to scold her fellow Democrat.
“Please #mansplain,” Garcia wrote, “why it’s ok to balance the budget on women’s backs?”
Then she made plans to reintroduce her proposal during budget talks next year.
What Garcia did not do, despite her bill passing the Legislature without a single dissenting vote, was suggest that lawmakers override Brown’s veto. Not since Brown was governor before, in 1979, has the Legislature taken such a step – rare in most states, in California a taboo. In the decades since the last veto override, five governors, including three Republicans and two Democrats, have gone unscathed.
“There are ways to proceed that might not ruin a relationship,” Garcia said.
For lawmakers, however, collegiality has come at a cost. As of midday Wednesday, one-half of the more than 160 bills Brown has vetoed in the two-year session have cleared the Legislature without a dissenting vote on either floor, according to legislative records, far surpassing the two-thirds threshold necessary to override a veto.
The rejected measures ranged from proposals to add a supportive housing expert to the board that distributes mental health tax money – “the current commission … is adequate to the task,” Brown wrote in his veto message – to a bill meant to increase the independence of local government auditors. On Wednesday, three of the four bills Brown vetoed had passed both floors without dissent.
Several other bills passed with some ‘No’ votes, but still cleared the two-thirds threshold.
Brown will have more chances to decide if lawmakers’ wholesale support for a bill means it should be signed. Of the nearly 600 bills remaining on Brown’s desk as of midday Wednesday, about 140 cleared the floors of both houses without a dissenting vote.
“If it were purely on policy merits, there would be the votes to override the veto,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “But here’s why they’re so rare: A veto override is a full-frontal assault on a governor’s authority, and the cost of taking on a governor, the political cost of taking on a governor, usually far outweighs the policy gain that would come from overriding their veto.”
Brown, a fourth-term Democrat with relatively high public approval ratings, has maintained a favorable relationship with the Democratic-controlled Legislature since returning to office in 2011.
In other states, lawmakers are more willing to openly defy the chief executive. One day after Brown’s tampon veto, Republican lawmakers in Missouri, who have frequently clashed with the state’s Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, overrode his vetoes of gun and voter identification legislation.
The governors of West Virginia, Maryland, Alabama and Hawaii have all had vetoes overridden this year, and in June, Connecticut’s Democratic-controlled Legislature handed that state’s Democratic governor, Dannel Malloy, the first veto overrides of his tenure.
Connecticut House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said that after letting vetoes stand in previous years, “we really did feel there were some important policy initiatives and also pro-business bills that we really felt were very important to the state of Connecticut,” according to The Associated Press.
California’s legislative leaders have exercised more caution. With less than 10 days remaining in this year’s bill-signing period – and Brown still weighing hundreds of bills – the offices of Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, both of Los Angeles, said the leaders were unavailable for comment.
But there was no indication of a change of course from last year, when de León said, “There’s going to be no veto overrides.”
Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, whose bill to help active military members find legal aid was vetoed by Brown last week, declined through her office to comment on an override. She said in a prepared statement, “I look forward to continuing the discussion next year.”
Last year, Brown vetoed just more than 14 percent of bills, in line with his record since returning to office in 2011. In his first two terms as governor, however, Brown was far more accommodating, vetoing less than 5 percent of regular session bills.
Yet Brown was treated with less deference during his first governorship, maintaining a fractious relationship with a Legislature that overrode his vetoes on death penalty legislation and a bill to raise state worker pay.
Former Assemblyman S. Floyd Mori, a Democrat who took part in the employee compensation override, said the Legislature at the time was “willing to speak up when we needed to speak up.”
“I don’t think it’s a matter of picking a fight,” he said. “I think it’s a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, and certainly if one disagrees with a specific issue, one should certainly vote that disagreement, or express that disagreement.”
Despite lobbying to prevent veto overrides, Brown said in 1979 that he did not take them personally, telling reporters after the pay veto override, “It was a professional difference in judgment.”
Last year, after Brown vetoed a bill – passed by a veto-proof majority – to broaden the type of conflicts of interest that lawmakers must disclose, the bill’s author, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, said several colleagues approached him about an override.
He said he “pushed the envelope as far as I could,” but the Legislature never came close to taking the measure up.
“Members run 20 bills a year, and I think that when a member runs that many bills a year, that means you have a lot more things you care about, and a lot more issues you care about,” Gatto said. “You tend to be a little bit more prone to compromise than if you had just one big bill.”
Gatto said it “would be better for our system of checks and balances if the Legislature were to assert itself on something that meant a lot to the Legislature.” He identified Garcia’s bill as one for which an override “should remain on the table.”
But Garcia is not pursuing it. When Brown vetoed her tampon bill, she said, “I had some really strong opinions that I needed to get out.” But she feared an override would be counterproductive.
“Do we want to use all of our capital on this one item, when we have so much other work to do?” she asked. “As an individual, I decided to be really critical and really vocal about it … It’s a different thing to put all my peers in that position and ask them all to take the risk.”
She added, “They have other things that they’re working on.”