Legislature sues Inslee over one-sentence veto

Legislature sues Inslee over one-sentence veto
Two administrative committees for the state House and Senate voted unanimously to file a lawsuit against Governor Jay Inslee regarding his veto of a single sentence in the 2019-21 transportation budget. Photo: freepik.com

This legislative session Governor Jay Inslee vetoed a single sentence in the 2019-21 transportation budget related to transit grant funding and appropriated $175 million within the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to pay for fish culverts projects. Now, two House and Senate administrative committees have voted to sue Inslee’s office for violating the state constitution with that veto..

In a press release, the Senate Republicans announced that the Senate Facilities & Operations Committee and the House Executive Rules Committee voted unanimously to pursue the lawsuit. The dispute focuses on state grant funding for transit services. A sentence at the end of six provisions states that “Fuel type may not be a factor in the grant selection process.”

In his veto, Inslee removed that sentence on the basis that it would contradict existing state law. However, Section 12 of the state constitution says that if the governor wishes to do so, he “may not object to less than an entire section, except that if the section contain(s) one or more appropriation items he may object to any such appropriation item or items.”

In his veto statement, Inslee acknowledged that section of the state constitution, though he called the situation a “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,” he said.

However, in a statement, Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9) said “the text of the statement isn’t the issue. It’s the fact that the governor can’t be allowed to overstep his constitutional authority. This is why we have separate branches of the government. The state constitution provides the executive branch with the power to veto sections of legislation or specific appropriation items. It does not give the governor the power to veto individual sentences.”

Similar rhetoric is found in the Aug. 30 complaint filed by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s Office in Thurston County Superior Court against Inslee. “This is an issue of substantial public interest affecting the constitutional roles and prerogatives both of the people’s elected representatives in the Legislature and of the Governor as the State’s chief executive officer. The public policy merits of the Legislature’s enactment or of the Governor’s partial veto are not at issue.”

The decision was praised by the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), which has filed a separate lawsuit against Inslee and the legislature.

“The Governor can not pick and choose among sentences in legislative acts,” BIAW General Counsel Jackson Maynard said in a statement. “The Governor has the authority to veto parts of bills passed by the legislature, he must veto an entire section rather than veto a single item or line.”

Washington Policy Center Government Reform Director Jason Mercier told Lens the lawsuit will be the “quickest, easiest decision a judge is going to make” based on all the evidence and prior case law.

“It’s an infringement on their (legislature) powers of appropriation,” he said. “The governor either signs or vetoes; he can’t rewrite. That’s what this veto does.”

Although not included in the lawsuit, Inslee’s budgetary maneuvers regarding fish barrier removal drew apprehension from members of both parties during a July 25 Joint Transportation Committee meeting. A U.S. court injunction requires that more than 900 barriers be removed by 2030. As part of the 2019-21 transportation budget, the legislature appropriated $100 million, but Inslee moved $175 million in WSDOT from other projects toward culverts.

Mercier said that unlike the transit grant funding veto, it would be much harder for the legislature to argue in court due to authority granted to the state Office of Financial Management over leftover funds from transportation projects.

Nevertheless, House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey (D-27) wrote in a June op-ed for the Tacoma News Tribune that Inslee’s move “won’t fix the problem. It’s not wise to risk entangling his funding shift in a possible court case, and it doesn’t help to point fingers at lawmakers who’ll be working on this issue, and voting for budgets and legislation, next session.”

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