Gubernatorial Signatures, Vetos Carry Little Weight

The governor’s veto powers in Tennessee are among the weakest in the country, making the top executive’s signature virtually unnecessary to enact controversial laws the Legislature wants.

Tennessee governors may not have a lot of veto power, but that doesn’t mean the next governor needs to support what he calls “silly” bills lawmakers pass, Gov. Phil Bredesen said.

Bredesen was responding to reporters’ questions about comments from GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill Haslam. This week Haslam told the Tennessee Firearms Association he would support a controversial gun rights expansion if the General Assembly sent it to his desk.

“Just because the Legislature does something stupid doesn’t mean that the governor has to go along with it,” said Bredesen, who himself has gotten crossways with the gun lobby over the right to carry guns into bars.

In Bredesen’s eight-year tenure, he stood up to many bills he disapproved of, but almost all those measures still became law.

He refused to sign 32 bills that the Legislature sent to him, allowing the measures to become law without his signature. He also vetoed eight bills, three of which were overridden by the Legislature. He issued most of his vetoes in his second term.

Tennessee’s Constitution makes it easy for the General Assembly to override the governor’s veto. Members need only a majority vote in each chamber, which amounts to backing from 50 members of the House and 17 members in the Senate. That’s the same number of votes needed to pass a bill.

Most state’s legislatures need a two-thirds or three-fifths vote to override a veto. Only six states require a simple majority to trump the governor; the others are Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (pdf Table 98.6-22).

Bredesen vetoed two bills to allow patrons to bring handguns into bars, including one in 2009 that was struck down by the courts and a second measure this spring. Lawmakers quickly overrode his veto pen.

In 2009, he rejected a measure that would have restricted which governing bodies can mandate nutritional information labeling in restaurants. He said the measure would delay citizens from having the information needed to be healthier, but the Legislature out-muscled him in early 2010.

Bredesen vetoed a bill in 2007 that would have given a 2.5 cents-per-gallon state subsidy for ethanol-blended gasoline in some East Tennessee counties, including Pilot Oil Corp., a truck stop company owned by the Haslam family. That veto stuck after the governor said he was afraid the measure would pay private companies millions of dollars for activities they were already doing instead of encouraging new fuel development.

But even with weak veto authority, Bredesen says Haslam as governor would have additional tools at his disposal if Republicans have control of both the Senate and House.

“That gives him some additional tools to try to keep people on the straight and narrow with these things,” he said. “You can still do the veto and at least indicate that not everybody thinks that way in the state.”

Haslam’s campaign spokesman echoed Bredesen’s sentiments, indicating he wouldn’t wait for the veto option to stand against certain issues: “Leadership happens all along the way, and in Tennessee if you’re waiting for a signature to show it, you’re too late.”

Mike McWherter, a Democrat running for Bredesen’s seat, notes that it’s just as important to be vocal with both the public and the Legislature, adding “the governor has to provide some leadership in that direction because otherwise all they’re hearing from are special interest groups.”

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