OLYMPIA — As Gov. Jay Inslee faces a lawsuit from the state Legislature over line-item vetoes he issued on climate bills last month, some lawmakers and activists worry what Inslee's veto power could mean for future legislative compromises.
The case got a hearing in the state Supreme Court on Tuesday where counsel for both Inslee and the Legislature argued before the court what exactly a governor is allowed to veto. The state Constitution allows a governor to veto whole sections of bills when signing them but not specific line items.
Inslee last month vetoed lines in two climate bills that link the implementation of the bills to passage of a 5-cent gas tax increase to help pay for a new transportation revenue package.
The arguments on Tuesday centered around what is considered "a whole proviso," which the governor is allowed to veto, and how a new ruling on the subject could affect previous ones. In a previous case from 2019, the Thurston County Superior Court ruled Inslee's vetoes in the transportation budget exceeded his constitutional authority.
Inslee's counsel argued that each condition on an appropriation in a budget bill is a "whole proviso" and therefore subject to the governor's veto ability. In their brief, the Legislature's counsel argued the governor cannot veto a single sentence in larger appropriation items as it exceeds the governor's constitutional power.
Along with the constitutionality of the vetoes, lawmakers — even those in Inslee's own party — have concerns about what it could mean for future legislative compromises.
The language Inslee vetoed was a compromise reached by legislators, an attempt from Democrats to strike a bargain on decreasing carbon while increasing funding for new roads, highways and other transportation projects. In his veto message, Inslee said delaying the effective date of the policies "unnecessarily hinders our state's ability to combat climate change, one of the greatest challenges facing our state and the world today."
Democratic leaders in the Legislature immediately criticized his decision, saying they undermine compromises made during the legislative session. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said in a statement at the time that he was concerned that "undoing good faith negotiations will severely hurt our ability to reach agreement on important policies in the future."
Line-item vetoes are a subject of controversy in many states, but only six states don't allow them. Every state allows the governor to veto entire bills, but not as many allow partial veto methods, such as line-item, amendatory or reduction vetoes. Forty-four states allow line-item budget vetoes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
NCSL notes on its website that line-item vetoes often bring questions on what constitutes an appropriation bill and what constitutes an item within that appropriation bill. In the case involving Inslee, lawyers are hoping the Supreme Court will again give clarity on the issue despite their ruling three years ago.
Other state legislatures have brought their governors to court over similar issues with item vetoes or appropriating funds.
One of the compromises vetoed by Inslee was a section in the cap-and-trade bill that required tribal consultation before new climate projects in the state. Inslee vetoed the line because it "differs from our current government-to-government approach, and does not properly recognize the mutual, sovereign relationship between tribal governments and the state."
The veto is not being taken up in court but still angered many tribal activists and other lawmakers.
During the bill signing, Paul Chiyokten Wagner, founder of advocacy group Protectors of the Salish Sea, protested the veto.
Wagner told The Spokesman-Review tribes had worked to get the language in the bill, which he said helped push the bill to final passage. The language could have protected some sacred sites in the state.
"(The veto) is very disturbing and upsetting and dishonorable," Wagner said.
Shortly after the veto, National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp said in a statement that Inslee committed "the most egregious and shameless betrayal of a deal I have ever witnessed from a politician of any party, at any level."
Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, said in a statement after the veto that he would not have voted for the cap-and-trade bill without the consultation language. Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, also criticized the veto, saying Inslee "broke trust with Washington's tribes in a way that complicates and damages dialogue with tribes statewide."
Inslee responded during a press conference last week, saying the way the language was drafted "would have given every single tribe in the state the ability to cancel or terminate every single project no matter what it was, no matter what reason."
He said there needed to be more work done to further define the consultation piece in a way that works for everyone, adding that he was already meeting with tribal chairs to do so.