When the General Assembly convenes tomorrow to take up the Governor’s amendments and vetoes, it will see its lightest load since 2008 (tied for the seventh lightest since 1982), dealing with less than two-thirds the average number of amendments and vetoes from the Robb administration to present.
Divided government influences the number of bills returned by a Governor, but personality — or perhaps party — is supreme. Governors Warner and Allen both presided over a divided government; Allen returned 17.5% of bills that reached his desk, while Warner sent back a mere 7.0% with amendments or vetoes. Republicans were far more likely to return bills than were Democrats, and Allen in particular put his red pen to work. And while there were fewer returned bills in the 1980s than since, when controlling for other factors, the passage of time seems to have played only a modest role; Governors a few decades ago were not noticeably more reticent to engage with the legislature than their successors, and were in fact more likely to veto (but somewhat less likely to amend) legislation.
Indeed, the decline of the veto may be the real story of the past 1/3rd century. From 1982 – 2000, 1.7% of all bills were vetoed. Since then, scarcely half a percent have fallen prey to the veto pen, with Kaine’s 12 vetoes in 2009 and 10 in 2007 the only times that the number even reached 1%.
From 1982-present, the three Republican Governors (Allen, Gilmore, and McDonnell) returned 14.4% of the bills that landed on their desks. The six Democratic Governors (Robb, Baliles, Wilder, Warner, Kaine, and McAuliffe) have returned 9.5% of those reaching them. This number is skewed somewhat by the fact that the first three aforementioned Democratic governors were working with Democratic legislatures, whereas all three Republicans had one or both chambers in Democratic hands at some point during his tenure.
Divided government cannot explain away the entire effect, however, and the higher rate of returned bills under divided government (12.1% compared to 7.7%) appears to owe more to Republican executives frequently being at the helm under divided government than anything else. Wilder, Kaine, and McAuliffe, all working with at least one chamber in Republican hands, returned 9.9% of bills; during the eight years that Republican Governors presided over a divided government, they returned 15.9%.
Perhaps, then, Republican Governors are the more likely to wish to restrain legislative actions, though if so, they tend to accomplish their aims through amendments, not vetoes. Note the declining prevalence of vetoes, and the degree to which some governors involved themselves in the text of legislation, in the table below, which shows Governor’s amendments and vetoes as a percentage of all bills sent to the Governor.
Whether McAuliffe’s lower number of returned bills (7.4% amended or vetoed), which currently puts him ahead of only Warner (7.0%), will hold remains to be seen. But for now, legislators returning to Richmond tomorrow will enjoy a light load.