OLYMPIA — The Washington Legislature announced Thursday plans to sue Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, saying he overstepped his authority with a series of one-sentence vetoes in this year’s transportation budget.
Lawmakers said the governor violated the constitutional ban against vetoing less than a full section of legislation. The Democratic-led Legislature plans to file the lawsuit on Friday in Thurston County Superior Court.
“By vetoing individual sentences, we believe the governor has exceeded the constitutional power afforded to the executive branch,” Senate Democratic Majority Leader Andy Billig said in a written statement. “The checks and balances woven throughout our constitution are essential to a healthy democracy. This lawsuit is one of those checks.”
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee helped draft the budget bill, said the Legislature had to undertake this legal challenge.
“It’s executive overreach and we cannot allow it to happen. Absolutely not,” he said Thursday. “I don’t see how they can’t see it like that.”
The lawmakers’ plans to challenge the governor were first reported by The Daily Herald.
In May, Inslee vetoed one sentence at the end of seven provisions of the budget relating to grant funding for transit services that said fuel type could not be a factor in the grant selection process.
In his veto message, Inslee wrote that the requirement was “contrary to, and in direct conflict with” statutory mandates that direct the state Department of Transportation to consider energy efficiency issues, as well as federal and state air quality requirements in selecting programs and projects.
“While my veto authority is generally limited to subsections or appropriation items in an appropriation bill, in this very rare and unusual circumstance I have no choice but to veto a single sentence in several subsections to prevent a constitutional violation and to prevent a forced violation of state law,” Inslee wrote in his May veto message.
The separation-of-powers issue has been raised in the past, following voters’ 1974 adoption of a constitutional amendment to restrict the governor to vetoing no less than a full section of a bill.
The last time a similar lawsuit was filed by the Legislature against a governor was in 2003, against then-Gov. Gary Locke. According to Senate attorneys, Locke didn’t fight the lawsuit, and he withdrew the vetoes during a one day special session. It was the second time Locke had faced such a challenge. The Supreme Court in 1999 invalidated his veto from a bill from the 1997 legislative session. The high court in 1997 upheld gubernatorial vetoes by then-Gov. Mike Lowry following a legislative challenge from the 1994 session.
House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox wrote in an emailed statement that while he believes case law supports the legislative branch’s position in this lawsuit, “it’s important for the court to rule so both the Legislature and governor have a clear understanding of their authority in the future.”
In a statement responding to the lawsuit Thursday, Inslee said that he doesn’t believe the issue has been fully settled by the courts. He pointed to his contention that the language needed to be vetoed because it was an attempt to indirectly amend an existing statute.
“This is a respectful difference of opinion, and we look forward to forthcoming guidance from our courts,” Inslee wrote.
Last week, Inslee dropped his 2020 presidential bid and announced he was running for a third term as governor.