Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent signing of legislation should ensure major advances toward lowering carbon emissions and limiting the march of climate change — achievement of a signature issue for him — but his partial vetoes of subjects and provisions in three bills aren’t clearing the air between him and state lawmakers, even those from his own party.
And that could smog the future for not only the climate legislation but for other priorities that will follow in coming sessions.
This week and last Inslee signed a raft of climate and environmental policy and law, legislation that was either requested or supported by the governor’s office. Among the bills signed into law:
Senate Bill 5126, intended to reduce carbon dioxide to net zero emissions by 2050, institutes a cap-and-invest program that will require major polluters, particularly oil refineries, to buy credits for each ton of carbon dioxide they release. The number of credits issued each year would decline over time, resulting in higher prices for the credits and more revenue and encouraging reductions in emissions and an eventual phase-out of the use of fossil fuels for transportation.
House Bill 1091 directly limits carbon emissions through a low-carbon fuel standard, similar to programs already in place in California, Oregon and British Columbia. The program would establish a trading system where deficits for carbon-intensive petroleum fuels could be offset by a range of less-polluting fuels such as ethanol and bio-diesel; hydrogen for fuel cells; and the promotion of electric vehicles and development of the roadside charging stations to power them.
House Bill 1287 addressing electric vehicles, requires the state Department of Commerce to develop and maintain a map of publicly available electric charging stations while forecasting future needs; requires private and public electric utilities to plan for increased demand as the number of electric vehicles on the road grows; and would have set a goal to require that all new cars and light-duty trucks sold in the state as of 2030 be electric or zero-emission.
Each of those was signed into law, but with some significant deletions, partial vetoes that Inslee said were necessary to remove potential obstacles that could have delayed or prevented their adoption.
Both the cap-and-trade and low-carbon fuel standard had been — during consideration in the Legislature — tied to a provision sought by lawmakers, including Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. Hobbs, for three years running, has sought the adoption of a major transportation package that most recently included up to $17.8 billion in spending and also outlined new taxes, fees and bonding.
While Hobbs’ package proposed a nearly 10-cent a gallon increase to the gas tax, the provision agreed to by majorities in the House and Senate — the one that was tied to the two bills — required passage of a transportation package and a gas tax increase of at least five cents a gallon by the bills’ effective date of 2023.
Inslee removed that provision, clearing both cap-and-trade and the fuels standard to take effect in 2023, regardless of whether a transportation package and a gas tax increase were approved.
In the same fashion, Inslee struck a section in the electric vehicle legislation that removed the goal for electric vehicle sales, because it would have required that — by 2030 — 75 percent of vehicles licensed in the state be assessed a per-mile road-usage charge, seen as an alternative to the state’s gas tax. Again Inslee’s office said the transition to electric vehicles was too important to link to the Legislature’s uncertain passage of a new transportation revenue source.
But the partial vetoes — at least for the cap-and-trade and fuel standard bills — drew loud objections from leaders in the House and Senate, particularly Democrats, citing what they saw as executive overreach by the governor.
Inslee, constitutionally, can veto bills outright and can even veto sections of bills, as he did with the electric vehicle legislation; what he can’t do, legislators stressed, is eliminate individual provisions, essentially a line-item veto.
Inslee’s use of a line-item veto is already being challenged; he lost last year in Thurston County Superior Court over his vetoes of separate sentences in transportation legislation from 2019; the state Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in that case in June.
Now the governor faces new threats of lawsuit by legislators, many of whom are on the same page as he is environmentally in supporting the climate legislation but are rightfully choking on Inslee’s attempts to scuttle crafted compromise and rewrite legislation.
In clearing the way for the legislation Inslee sought, he could complicate the state’s legislative process on these and other priorities, as is clear from lawmakers’ reactions:
“The Legislature is responsible for drafting laws and the executive branch is responsible for implementing them. … The governor’s partial veto today of … the clean fuel standard bill, reaches beyond his constitutional powers,” said House Majority Leader Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma.
“Whatever the reason, his subsection veto today is illegal. That alone says a lot about why our political system has checks and balances on one-person rule,” said Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia.
“This sets a chilling precedent and poisons the well for all future negotiations on virtually any tough issue,” state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, said in a statement. “When it comes to the governor’s top priorities in the future, he should expect a more hostile Legislature if this is the path he wishes to take.”
That the Washington state Legislature often has taken its sweet time on statewide priorities is well understood; it took 11 years and a mandate from the state Supreme Court to get the Legislature to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund public education.
But the deadlines the Legislature essentially set for itself in all three bills were not unrealistic. A transportation package had significant support this session. And eight years would allow time to begin phasing in a road-usage charge, especially starting with electric vehicles themselves, which currently pay only a flat rate that in many cases may not fairly assess their share of infrastructure costs.
Inslee’s desire for all due speed on climate solutions is understandable; laudable even. But in attempting to use a tool he does not possess Inslee is jeopardizing legislation now and in the future, not only for climate but for transportation and all state priorities.
The governor does have one option that could more quickly reach resolution on these issues, one that he considered as recently as last month and one that could be key to federal funding: Call the Legislature into special session to adopt a transportation package. Doing that is in his constitutional toolbox.
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