Lawmakers thought Inslee’s veto went too far; they were right

Governor knew vetoing a single sentence in roads budget was unusual, a judge ruled it wasn’t legal

A Thurston County judge has invalidated Gov. Jay Inslee’s vetoes of single sentences in the transportation budget in 2019, concluding those actions exceeded his authority as the state’s chief executive.

The decision, handed down late last week, is a win for the state Legislature which sued the governor, asserting the two-term Democrat crossed a constitutional line separating his power to veto from their power to legislate.

“We have a system of checks and balances that is vital to the functions of our state and this case was right on the line,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said Monday. “I am pleased with the outcome.”

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, issued a statement Friday when the judicial order was signed.

“We are pleased that the court agreed with the Legislature’s understanding of the governor’s veto power and position on this important separation of powers issue,” he said. “It is helpful for the Legislature to have this legal certainty as it confronts state budget challenges in the weeks and months ahead.”

When Inslee signed the transportation budget in May 2019, he acknowledged there was no precedent for vetoing single sentences in the manner that he did.

Now, he’ll have to decide whether to battle on.

“We appreciate the Court’s review of the complex issues in this case, and we are considering our options,” Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said in an email Friday.

The legal fight centered on one sentence which appears at the end of six provisions in the transportation budget pertaining to grant funding for transit services including purchases of buses and vanpools. The bill was passed in April and Inslee issued the vetoes when he signed the budget in May. The Democrat-controlled Legislature filed suit Aug. 29.

In Inslee’s tenure, laws have been passed pushing transit providers, public and private nonprofits, to move from gasoline-powered vehicles to zero-emission vehicles such as ones powered by electricity. State law lists energy efficiency standards as one of the criteria to be considered as part of the grant selection process.

In the 2019-21 budget, lawmakers included the line: “Fuel type may not be a factor in the grant selection process.” They said this would ensure transit agencies who are unable to make the transition to zero-emission vehicles right away can still apply for the roughly $200 million in grants offered through the state’s public transportation program.

That line is what got cut. Inslee argued at the time of the veto that it amended existing law by changing the rules for the grant selection process. He contended the constitution requires such a revision be done with a separate bill and not through the budget.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy disagreed and invalidated the vetoes.

Governors can veto entire bills, complete sections of bills and individual appropriation items, she noted in her ruling. A governor cannot veto less than a full section unless it can be shown the Legislature acted purposely to circumvent their authority, which it did not do in this case, she said.

Those sentences did not represent substantive legislation nor were they separate appropriations, she decided.

Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, said he was concerned with the damaging policy changes wrought by the vetoes.

“The language allowed for smaller, rural transit agencies to compete for grants and funding and not be constrained by having fuel type as a requirement,” he said. “This is important for these agencies as they look to deliver critical transit services for their riders.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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