A promise made by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to protect the citizens’ right to referendum led to an awkward veto today by the governor on a $10 million allocation to compensate people who were exonerated after serving time in Michigan prisons.

Whitmer signed into law improvements to the process of paying the wrongfully convicted, but she has insisted that the $10 million should be approved separately within the state budget process, not in legislation that deals with policy. The bill that she partially vetoed was passed unanimously by the Legislature earlier this year.

The governor has vowed to end the sleight-of-hand legislative practice of tacking on spending money to bills, which makes them immune from the referendum process that traditionally gives the public the right to reject laws at the ballot box.

However, the state Constitution blocks referendums on budget issues by preventing ballot proposals on new laws that include appropriations. In turn, the Republican-controlled Legislature has repeatedly made controversial bills referendum-proof by adding small allocations, sometimes less than $1,000, in recent years.

Meanwhile, the sponsor of the bill to shore up the wrongful conviction fund, Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, called Whitmer’s line-item veto “disgraceful” at a time when the fund is nearly out of money.

“She ought to be ashamed of herself for playing political games with people’s lives,” Johnson said.

The state may owe up to $24 million in payments to nearly 40 former inmates who were freed after new evidence surfaced.

The wrongful conviction law that took effect in 2017 grants $50,000 per year served for those who were locked up and later found innocent.

State officials were caught by surprise in February when, after just two years, the fund was falling far short of the millions of dollars needed to fulfill the promises made to those exonerated.

The portion of the bill signed by Whitmer today will add greater transparency and accountability to the compensation system by requiring quarterly reports by the Attorney General’s Office to the Legislature and State Budget Office on payments made and payments pending.