Why overturning a veto is a tough hurdle — even for popular legislation

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

On Thursday, the Senate voted 21-14 to overturn Gov. Brad Little’s first veto of the 2021 session, falling short of the two-thirds majority required from both the House and Senate. 

The House voted 62-7 on its override attempt earlier this week, easily surpassing the two-thirds threshold but losing some votes from the vote on the original bill, which passed the House with just one no vote on Feb. 25. The Senate’s vote on the original bill, concerning powers of the Idaho State Tax Commission chairman, was 23-9 — not as clear a majority, but still more support than Thursday’s override attempt. 

So why would a bill lose support between its original passage and a governor’s veto?

Former Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, who retired last year, said there are many reasons why a lawmaker who originally voted for a bill might not vote to overturn a veto. 

“If the executive office is of your own party, (an override) sometimes makes the governor look weak, or like he’s not in sync with the legislature and so forth,” Hill said in a phone interview on Thursday. That holds true especially if a lawmaker didn’t feel particularly strongly about the issue in the first place.

“You do not want to embarrass the governor,” he said.

Lawmakers can also change their minds. The governor may have pointed out new information or concerns in their veto letter, or lawmakers could have received more information via constituents or media coverage after their original vote, Hill said. (Read Little’s veto message on HB214 here.) Several weeks could have passed between the original vote and the veto override vote — in the case of House Bill 214, seven weeks separated the House floor vote and this week’s veto override attempt. That’s more than enough time to sway a legislator. 

Hill, who served in the Idaho Senate from 2000 to 2020, recalled one high-profile veto override in his career: An amendment to the Clean Indoor Air Act, which Hill was instrumental in passing in 2004 after his 28-year-old son, Ritchie, died of lung cancer despite never having smoked. 

The original legislation exempted bowling alleys, and “I just barely had the votes to get it out of committee as it was,” Hill recalled. When the Legislature came back three years later to add bowling alleys to the act, then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter vetoed it.

“For us to walk away and assume his veto is somehow better than our collective wisdom would be a great disservice to the people we represent,” Hill told the Senate at the time, according to Betsy Russell. That override vote was 29-6, while the House’s vote was 57-13.  

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