OLYMPIA — State lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee appear headed for a split decision in their latest legal brawl over the limits of his veto power.
The Legislature sued the governor in December, contending he crossed a constitutional line with vetoes within two bills passed during the 2021 session.
In one instance, he crossed out single sentences in the state transportation budget, concerning eligibility for grants to transit agencies.
In the other, he removed verbiage in a bill creating a clean fuel standard that tied the start of enforcement with the passage of a transportation funding package.
In Washington, governors can veto entire bills and cross out entire sections of legislation. But a series of state Supreme Court rulings make clear the state’s chief executive cannot veto less than an entire section — which is what lawmakers argue Inslee did with those two bills.
The most recent of those rulings came in November, weeks before the latest lawsuit got filed.
Inslee had vetoed the same lines dealing with transit agency grants in the transportation spending plan passed in 2019, and lawmakers sued. Justices sided with the Legislature in November and invalidated those vetoes.
Citing that decision, Inslee conceded in a court order last month that his vetoes in the 2021 transportation budget are “invalid … so there is no dispute between the parties on this issue.”
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy signed an order March 24 to confirm that this point is no longer in contention.
On a second allegation, lawmakers’ own actions appear to have made it moot.
The dispute centers on House Bill 1091, better known as the low-carbon-fuel-standard bill. It established a new program to curb greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the carbon intensity of transportation fuels.
Inslee deleted two paragraphs intended to synchronize compliance of the fuel standard with approval of a transportation funding package that contained a gas tax hike of at least a nickel a gallon.
That linkage was critical to securing support for the bill from moderate Senate Democrats. Although several Democrats said the governor signaled his willingness to accept the language, Inslee insisted he never endorsed it.
“This veto is an overstep of executive power,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said in a May 2021 news release. “I am concerned that undoing good faith negotiations will severely hurt our ability to reach agreement on important policies in the future.
Circumstances then changed.
During the 2022 session, Democrats used their majorities in the House and Senate to pass a multi-year, multibillion-dollar transportation package without a gas tax hike. In that legislation, they revised rules for the clean fuel standard and deleted the contested language in those two paragraphs from the statute.
Thus, there may be nothing left to debate in court, except how to bring this legal fight to an end.
“We won the first round based on precedent,” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia said. “The second one is kind of overcome by events. I personally think there’s not much point in proceeding.”
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, is of a similar mind.
“What’s left out there is pretty much moot. I am actually happy we made the issue moot,” she said, noting they achieved the goal of passing a transportation package.
Legislative leaders will need to confer among themselves and with their respective caucus attorneys before deciding the next step, Jinkins said. There may be issues that would make it worth continuing in court, she said.
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, declined to comment on the suit until he hears from GOP lawyers.
More broadly, he said he was pleased with what the Supreme Court did in November and disappointed the majority party didn’t join Republicans in setting limits on Inslee’s use of emergency powers.
“I’m glad to see some checks put on the governor’s power,” he said. “I wish that Democrats would agree with us in placing a few more checks on his authority.”
Meanwhile, Inslee is waiting on lawmakers to see what happens next.
“We believe the statutory changes made this last session render the case moot, but we are not aware of how the Legislature views the current status of the case,” said Mike Faulk, the governor’s press secretary. “We continue to work in good faith with the Legislature on discovery and scheduling matters.”
The two sides are set to appear in court for a hearing on April 22.