The PA Senate lawyers up


Gov. Corbett's recent vetoes may not be the last word on this year's budget.

Republicans who control the Senate have hired outside counsel to decide whether -- or even how -- to challenge Corbett's veto of roughly $7.2 million in legislative earmarks in a budget-related bill called the fiscal code. The code is often described as an instruction manual for how certain funds should be allocated.

From the moment Corbett announced that and other vetoes on July 10, Senate Republicans have maintained that striking lines from the fiscal code is not just unprecedented - but possibly unconstitutional.

The dispute boils down to article IV, section 16 of the state constitution - and how it should be interpreted. In short, Senate Republicans believe the governor only has the power to strike language from appropriations bills (for instance, the general appropriations bill, or what the rest of us refer to as "the budget").

The fiscal code, they maintain, is not an appropriations bill.

The administration obviously believes otherwise, and was careful to only veto language in the fiscal code that called for specific amounts of money for special projects chosen by the legislature. (Those projects, we should note, are not specified in the fiscal code; instead they are cloaked in obscure legal language).

Here is what the constitution says:

Partial Disapproval of Appropriation Bills
Section 16.

The Governor shall have power to disapprove of any item of any bill, making appropriations of money, embracing distinct items, and the part or parts of the bill approved shall be the law, and the item or items of appropriation disapproved shall be void, unless re-passed according to the rules and limitations prescribed for the passage of other bills over the Executive veto.

Drew Crompton, legal counsel and chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), said there is no decision yet on whether to sue Corbett. But he was unequivocal on this point: the balance of power between the branches of government is at stake.

"This isn't a matter of semantics," said Crompton. "Balance of power and institutional priorities are important."

The Senate has hired Steve MacNett, the onetime (and longtime) chief counsel for Senate Republicans who now works for Conrad O'Brien. MacNett will be paid $375 an hour, and Crompton said a decision on the best way to proceed should be made within a few weeks.

--Angela Couloumbis

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