Governors and State Legislatures


Anyone elected to the office of governor assumes tremendous responsibility overnight. He or she becomes the spokesperson for the entire state and their political party, accepts blame or praise for handling decision-making in times of crisis, oversees the implementation of public policy, and helps shepherd legislation through the lawmaking process. These tasks require a great deal of skill and demand that governors exhibit different strengths and personality traits. Governors must learn to work well with other lawmakers, bureaucrats, cabinet officials, and with the citizens who elected them to office in the first place. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, provides a good case in point.

Governors have tremendous power over the legislative branch because they serve year-round and hold office alone. They also command wide press coverage by virtue of being the leading elected official in their state. Finally, while there are variations in degree across the states, most governors have more power relative to their state legislatures than does the U.S. president relative to the U.S. Congress. State executive power flows from factors such as the propensity of state legislatures to meet for only part of the year and their resulting reliance for information on the governor and his/her administration, stronger formal tools (e.g., line-item vetoes), budget-cutting discretion, and the fact that state legislators typically hold down another job besides that of legislator.

Three of the governor’s chief functions are to influence the legislative process through an executive budget proposal, a policy agenda, and vetoes. Just as the president gives a State of the Union address once a year, so too do governors give an annual State of the State address before the state legislature (Figure). In this speech, they discuss economic and political achievements, cite data that supports their accomplishments, and overview the major items on their legislative agenda. This speech signals to members of the state legislature what priorities are high on the governor’s list. Those who share the governor’s party affiliation will work with him or her to see these goals achieved. Given that governors need the cooperation of state legislators to get their bills introduced and steered through the lawmaking process, they make developing good relationships with lawmakers a priority. This can entail helping lawmakers address the concerns of their constituents, inviting legislators to social events and meals, and scheduling weekly meetings with legislative leaders and committee chairs to discuss policy.Alan Rosenthal. 2013. The Best Job in Politics; Exploring How Governors Succeed as Policy Leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press.

An image of Nikki Haley standing behind a podium.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley delivers her 2015 State of the State address from the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 21, 2015.

In addition to providing a basic list of policy priorities, governors also initiate a budget proposal in most states. Here they indicate funding priorities and spell out the amounts that will be appropriated to various state agencies under their discretion. When the economy is strong, governors may find themselves in the enviable position of having a surplus of tax revenue. That allows them some flexibility to decide whether they want to reduce taxes, direct funds toward a new initiative or program, allocate more funds to current programs, restore funds that were cut during times of fiscal distress, or save surplus revenue in a rainy-day account.Elaine S. Povich, “Many State Governors Have Budget Problems with Their Own Parties,” Governing, 4 February 2013. Moreover, when cuts must be made, especially when the legislature is not in session, it is typically the governor or his or her finance director who makes the call on what gets cut.

Having introduced his or her priorities, the governor will work on the sidelines to steer favored bills through the legislative process. This may entail holding meetings with committee chairs or other influential lawmakers concerning their legislative priorities, working with the media to try to get favorable coverage of legislative priorities, targeting advocacy organizations to maintain pressure on resistant lawmakers, or testifying in legislative hearings about the possible impacts of the legislation.“Governors’ Powers and Authority,” (March 14, 2016).

Once legislation has made its way through the lawmaking process, it comes to the governor’s desk for signature. If a governor signs the bill, it becomes law, and if the governor does not like the terms of the legislation he or she can veto, or reject, the entire bill. The bill can then become law only if a supermajority of legislators overrides the veto by voting in favor of the bill. Since it is difficult for two-thirds or more of state legislators to come together to override a veto (it requires many members of the governor’s own party to vote against him or her), the simple act of threatening to veto can be enough to get legislators to make concessions to the governor before he or she will pass the legislation.

The ability to veto legislation is just one of the formal powers governors have at their disposal. Formal powers are powers the governor may exercise that are specifically outlined in state constitutions or state law.Laura van Assendelft. 1997. Governors, Agenda Setting, and Divided Government. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Unlike U.S. presidents, many governors also have additional veto powers at their disposal, which enhances their ability to check the actions of the legislative branch. For instance, most states provide governors the power of the line-item veto. The line-item veto gives governors the ability to strike out a line or individual portions of a bill while letting the remainder pass into law. In addition, approximately 30 percent of governors have the power of an amendatory veto, which allows them to send a bill back to the legislature and request a specific amendment to it. Finally, a small number of governors, including the governor of Texas, also have the power of a reduction veto, which allows them to reduce the budget proposed in a piece of legislation.National Conference of State Legislatures. “The Veto Process.” In General Legislative Procedures. Washington, DC: National Conference of State Legislatures, 6-29–6-64. (March 14, 2016).

The Vanna White and Frankenstein Vetoes in Wisconsin

Although the line-item, reduction, and amendatory vetoes give governors tremendous power to adjust legislation and to check the legislative branch, the most powerful and controversial vetoes, which have allowed governors to make selective deletions from a bill before signing, are dubbed the “Vanna White” veto and the “Frankenstein” veto. (Vanna White hosts the popular game show “Wheel of Fortune,” in which contestants guess what a phrase is based on a limited number of letters. As they guess the letters, White indicates the correct letters within the puzzle.) These powers have a colorful history in the state of Wisconsin, where voters have limited their influence on two occasions.

The first occurred in 1990 when voters passed a provision restricting the governor’s ability to use the “Vanna White” veto to change a bill by crossing out specific letters within a given word in order to create a new word. After this restriction took effect, the “Frankenstein” veto came into practice, which allowed a governor to remove individual words, numbers, or passages from a bill and string the remaining text together (like the fictional Dr. Frankenstein’s monster) in an effort to alter the original intent of the legislation.Monica Davey, “Wisconsin Voters Excise Editing from Governor’s Veto Powers,” New York Times, 3 April 2008.

As an example of the Frankenstein veto, when an appropriations bill was sent to Wisconsin governor James E. Doyle for signature in 2005, Doyle scrapped over seven hundred words from a passage that would have appropriated millions of dollars to transportation. The words that remained in the bill redirected those funds to education. Lawmakers were outraged, but they were not able to override the veto.Daniel C. Vock. 24 April 2007. “Govs Enjoy Quirky Veto Power,”

Then, in 2007, Governor Doyle used the veto once again to raise property taxes almost 2 percent.Steven Walters, “Voters Drive Stake into ‘Frankenstein Veto’,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2 April 2008. As a result of these controversial moves, the state house and senate passed a referendum to end the ability of governors to create a new sentence by combining words from two or more other sentences. A legislative referendum is a measure passed by the state legislature, such as a constitutional amendment, that goes to the voters for final approval.National Conference of State Legislatures. 20 September 2012. “Initiative, Referendum and Recall,” This referendum went to the voters for approval or rejection in the 2008 election, and the voters banned the practice. Governors in Wisconsin and all the states still have tremendous power to shape legislation, however, through the other types of vetoes discussed in this chapter.

Should any state governor have the powers referred to as the “Vanna White” and “Frankenstein” vetoes? What advantage, if any, might state residents gain from their governor’s ability to alter the intent of a bill the legislature has approved and then sign it into law?

Besides the formal power to prepare the budget and veto legislation, legislators also have the power to call special sessions of the legislature for a wide array of reasons. For instance, sessions may be called to address budgetary issues during an economic downturn, to put together a redistricting plan, or to focus intensively on a particular issue the governor wants rectified immediately.National Conference of State Legislatures. 6 May 2009. “Special Sessions,” In some states, only the governor has the power to call a special session, while in other states this power is shared between the legislative and the executive branches.

Link to learning graphic

For more details on the calling of legislative Special Sessions, visit the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Although governors have a great deal of power in the legislative arena, this is not their only area of influence. First, as leaders in their political party, governors often work to raise money for other political figures who are up for reelection. A governor who has high public approval ratings may also make campaign appearances on behalf of candidates in tough reelection fights across the state. Governors can draw in supporters, contributions, and media attention that can be beneficial to other political aspirants, and the party will expect them to do their part to ensure the greatest possible number of victories for their candidates. Second, as the spokesperson for their state, governors make every effort to sell the state’s virtues and unique characteristics, whether to the media, to other citizens across the United States, to potential business owners, or to legislative leaders in Washington, DC. Governors want to project a positive image of their state that will encourage tourism, relocation, and economic investment within its boundaries. Collectively, governors make a mark through the National Governors Association, which is a powerful lobbying force in the nation’s capital.

For example, Texas governor Greg Abbott made headlines in 2015 for writing to the CEO of General Electric (GE), urging the company to relocate its corporate headquarters from Connecticut, which had just raised its corporate tax rate, to Texas.Patrick Svitek, “Abbott Tries Wooing General Electric to Texas,” The Texas Tribune, 10 June 2015. As his state’s spokesperson, Abbott promoted Texas’s friendly corporate tax structure and investment in transportation and education funding in hopes of enticing GE to relocate there and bring economic opportunities with it. The company has since decided to relocate to Boston, after receiving incentives, worth up to $145 million, from Massachusetts officials.Ted Mann and Jon Kamp, “General Electric to Move Headquarters to Boston,” The Wall Street Journal, 13 January 2016. Another example involved Texas governor Rick Perry touring California in 2014 in order to bring prospective businesses from the Golden State to Texas.

In March 2015, the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, both sent letters to corporate heads in Indiana after controversy erupted around the passage of that state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.“Virginia Governor Tries to Woo Indiana Businesses,” (March 14, 2016). This bill is designed to restrict government intrusion into people’s religious beliefs unless there is a compelling state interest. It also provides individuals and businesses with the ability to sue if they feel their religious rights have been violated. However, opponents feared the law would be used as a means to discriminate against members of the LGBT community, based on business owners’ religious objections to providing services for same-sex couples.Stephanie Wang, “What the ‘Religious Freedom’ Law Really Means for Indiana,” Indy Star, 3 April 2015. In the media firestorm that followed the Indiana law’s passage, several prominent companies announced they would consider taking their business elsewhere or cancelling event contracts in the state if the bill were not amended.James Gherardi. March 25, 2015. “Indiana Businesses Concerned Over Economic Impact of Religious Freedom Bill,” This led opportunistic leaders in the surrounding area to make appeals to these companies in the hope of luring them out of Indiana. Ultimately, the bill was clarified, likely due in part to corporate pressure on the state to do so.Tony Cook, Tom LoBianco, and Brian Eason, “Gov. Mike Pence signs RFRA Fix,” Indy Star, 2 April 2015. The clarification made it clear that the law could not be used to refuse employment, housing, or service based on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.German Lopez. April 2, 2015. “How Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law Sparked a Battle Over LGBT Rights,”

Controversial legislation like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is only one of the many environmental factors that can make or break a governor’s reputation and popularity. Other challenges and crises that may face governors include severe weather, terrorist attacks, immigration challenges, and budget shortfalls.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie gained national attention in 2012 over his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which caused an estimated $65 billion worth of damage and cost the lives of over 150 individuals along the East Coast of the United States.29 October 2014. “These Images Show Just How Much Some Neighborhoods Were Changed by Hurricane Sandy,” Christie was famously photographed with President Obama during their joint tour of the damaged areas, and the governor subsequently praised the president for his response (Figure). Some later criticized Christie for his remarks because of the close proximity between the president’s visit and Election Day, along with the fact that the Republican governor and Democratic president were from opposite sides of the political aisle. Critics felt the governor had betrayed his party and that the publicity helped the president win reelection.Michael Barbaro, “After Obama, Christie Wants a G.O.P. Hug,” New York Times, 19 November 2012. Others praised the governor for cooperating with the president and reaching across the partisan divide to secure federal support for his state in a time of crisis.Teresa Welsh, “Is Chris Christie a GOP Traitor for His Obama Hurricane Praise?” U.S. News and World Report, 1 November 2012.

Image A is of Chris Christie and Barack Obama standing on a sidewalk with another person. Image B is of Chris Christie and Barack Obama in a room full of people.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie (right) hosted President Obama (center) during the president’s visit to the state in October 2012 following the destruction brought by Hurricane Sandy (a). After viewing the damage along the coastline of Brigantine, New Jersey, Christie and Obama visited residents at the Brigantine Beach Community Center (b).

If severe winter weather is forecasted or in the event of civil unrest, governors also have the power to call upon the National Guard to assist residents and first responders or aid in storm recovery (Figure). When governors declare a state of emergency, National Guard troops can be activated to go into local areas and assist with emergency efforts in whatever capacity they are needed.Susan Gardner, “Baltimore Erupts into Chaos: Governor activates National Guard,” 27 April 2015. In 2015, many governors in the New England region called press conferences, worked with snow-removal crews and local government officials, set up emergency shelters, and activated travel bans or curfews in the face of crippling snowstorms.Shira Schoenberg. 2 February 2015. “Governor Calls on 500 Massachusetts National Guard Troops to Dig State Out from Snowstorms,” When winter storms fail to bring predicted levels of snow, however, politicians can be left to field criticism that they instigated unnecessary panic.Leslie Larson and Jennifer Fermino, “Cuomo and de Blasio Tell Storm Critics ‘Better Safe Than Sorry’,” New York Daily News, 27 January 2015. Governors feel the weight of their decisions as they try to balance the political risks of overreacting and the human costs of letting the state be caught unprepared for these and other major natural disasters. As the chief spokesperson, they take all the blame or all the credit for their actions. With that said, it is important to note that presidents can enlist the National Guard for federal service as well.

An image of several people standing on top of the roof of a brick building. The roof is covered in snow.
Following a massive snowstorm in November 2014, New York governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the mobilization of more than five hundred members of the National Guard to assist with snow removal and traffic control. Here soldiers shovel snow from the roof of the Absolut Care senior center in Orchard Park, New York. (credit: Luke Udell, U.S. Army National Guard)

Governors also have the power to spare or enhance the lives of individuals convicted of crimes in their state. Although they may choose to exercise this formal power only during the closing days of their term, if at all, most governors have the authority to grant pardons just as U.S. presidents do. A pardon absolves someone of blame for a crime and can secure his or her release from prison. Governors can also commute sentences, reducing the time an individual must serve,“Pardons, Reprieves, Commutations and Respites,” (March 14, 2016). if there are doubts about the person’s guilt, concerns about his or her mental health, or reason to feel the punishment was inappropriately harsh. In the past ten years, the governors of New Jersey and Illinois have commuted the sentences of all inmates on death row before repealing the death penalty in their states.“Clemency Process by State,” (March 14, 2016).

Despite the tremendous formal powers that go with the job, being governor is still personally and professionally challenging. The demands of the job are likely to restrict time with family and require forgoing privacy. In addition, governors will often face circumstances beyond their control. For instance, the state legislature may include a majority of members who do not share the governor’s party affiliation. This can make working together more challenging and lead to less cooperation during the legislative session. Another challenge for governors is the plural executive, which refers to the fact that many state officials, such as the lieutenant governor, attorney general, and secretary of state are elected independently from the governor; hence, the governor has no direct control over them the way a president might have sway over U.S. executive officials. Governors can also face spending restrictions due to the economic climate in their state. They may have to make unpopular decisions that weaken their support among voters. The federal government can mandate that states perform some function without giving them any funds to do so. Finally, as we saw above, governors can be swept up in crises or natural disasters they did not anticipate and could not have foreseen. This can drain their energy and hamper their ability to generate good public policy.Rosenthal, The Best Job in Politics; Exploring How Governors Succeed as Policy Leaders.