Justices say Gov. Jay Inslee overstepped veto authority

SEATTLE (AP) — Gov. Jay Inslee overstepped his veto authority when he cut a sentence that appeared seven times in the 2019 transportation budget, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The sentence in question would have prevented the Department of Transportation from considering vehicle fuel type when it decided how to hand out grants for transit services. Lawmakers said the sentence would ensure transit agencies unable to make an immediate transition to zero-emission vehicles were not disqualified from getting $200 million in grants offered through the state.

The Legislature sued over the veto, and in a 7-2 decision Wednesday, the court said that while the governor has the authority to veto whole bills, sections of bills or whole appropriation items, he cannot excise parts of an appropriation item unless the Legislature has structured the measure in a way designed to circumvent a veto.

“This ruling maintains the delicate balance of power between the legislative and executive branches,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said in an emailed statement. “Checks and balances are essential to a healthy democracy and today’s ruling helps further define the governor’s constitutional limits.”

In his arguments to the court, Inslee said that even if his veto was invalid, the court should strike down the language about fuel type anyway, because it impermissibly amended or conflicted with a different state law concerning the administration of transportation grants. The majority rejected that argument.

Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said in an email only that legal staff were reviewing the ruling.

Inslee, a Democrat, has repeatedly been accused of abusing his veto power. In May, he angered lawmakers when he vetoed parts of a carbon-cap program and a bill on clean-fuels standards.

The vetoes concerned language that said those bills would not take effect until the Legislature approved a new transportation-funding package — part of a “grand bargain” lawmakers struck to ensure the climate change measures had enough support to pass.

In his veto message for the clean-fuels bill, Inslee said lawmakers had obviously structured the bill in a way to try to preclude him from vetoing the language tying it to the eventual passage of a transportation package — exactly the sort of thing the state Supreme Court has warned the Legislature against, he said.

Billig said the Legislature is planning to challenge that veto in court.