A case now before the State Supreme Court concerning a line-item veto made by Governor Jay Inslee in the 2019-21 transportation budget could determine the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.
The actual provision vetoed, prohibiting state officials from taking fuel types into consideration as part of a grant program, is considered somewhat trivial compared to the issue of vetoing subsections of a bill. It’s a practice Inslee exercised recently to remove a provision mandating a transportation package before the legislation could be implemented, drawing intense bipartisan opposition among legislators.
However, Inslee has also engaged in other political maneuvers that, while not legally challenged, have generated frustration by state lawmakers and others. In 2019 Inslee also appropriated $175 million within the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to pay for fish culvert projects. Last month, Inslee signed two conflicting broadband bills off camera and did so simultaneously, using his left hand to sign one, and his right hand to sign the other.
The argument before the Supreme Court on June 9 concerned whether or not Inslee’s veto violated Article 3 Section 12 of the State Constitution, which states that the governor can’t veto less than an entire section unless it contains an appropriation.
A much discussed case during the oral arguments was the 1997 Lowry decision and to what extent it applied. In that decision, the court ruled on whether provisions in a budget that didn’t directly involve an appropriation could still be line-item vetoed.
Inslee’s counsel Alicia Young tried to make the argument before the justices that the veto was legal because the legislature was attempting to “logroll” the provision and circumvent Inslee’s veto authority. “The legislature tacked it on to seven different subsections, and in doing did so to avoid the veto.”
Young also argued that Inslee’s veto message, which acknowledges the state constitution’s limits on veto authority, “isn’t relevant to the court.”
However, her arguments drew skepticism from several supreme court justices such as Debra Stephens, who told Young: “your argument seems very policy oriented.”
Justice Barbara Madsen noted that “there are other ways to address the logrolling. What you’re asking us is to really shift the power to legislate to the governor.”
Acting on behalf of the legislature, Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Even told the court that “the issue is how to maintain the constitutional balance between the legislature’s (power) to condition its appropriations and the governor’s veto authority. The legislature was regulating agency conduct more than spending the money.”
He added that if the governor can veto that provision, “there’s no limit on what the governor can veto as an item. The governor can veto all the conditions, (and) keep all of the money.”