Governor issues questionable line-item vetoes, again

By JASON MERCIER  | 
May 17, 2021
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We knew it was coming. The moment lawmakers tried to get clever and thought they could gain support for a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (HB 1091) and Cap and Trade (SB 5126) by linking the policies together with a future transportation tax package, it was clear what the Governor would do – veto the restriction. Never mind the fact it appears to be illegal to do this but since he has previously issued questionable line-item vetoes, there was never any doubt that he would do it again to secure his top environmental priorities without any conditions. Today that’s exactly what the Governor did when vetoing the linkage.

For background, Washington’s current veto restriction language was adopted by voters via a constitutional amendment in 1974. According to the arguments in the 1974 Voter’s Guide:

“Help Rid Your State of One-Man Lawmaking – Washington is the only state in the nation in which the Governor exercises practically unlimited power to remove portions of laws passed by the Legislature . . .  SJR 140 will prevent one person from changing behind the closed doors of his office bills which are the product of an open hearing process, accessible and visible to all citizens.”

As a result of this 1974 constitutional amendment, Washington’s veto restriction now says (emphasis added):

“If any bill presented to the governor contain several sections or appropriation items, he may object to one or more sections or appropriation items while approving other portions of the bill: Provided, That he may not object to less than an entire section, except that if the section contain one or more appropriation items he may object to any such appropriation item or items.

Will the Governor's new line-item vetoes face the same fate as the ones in 2019 and result in lawsuits?

These vetoes today weren’t the only questionable recent use of the Governor’s bill signing pen(s). As reported by Crosscut:

“Washington state went all in on expanding public broadband this year. So much so, that the Legislature passed two different bills aimed at extending high-speed internet to people in rural areas. It’s possible, however, that two bills aren’t better than one. And they may partly cancel each other out . . .

In an unusual move on Thursday, the governor signed both bills at the same time, one with his right hand and the other with his left. While most bill signings occur in public and are broadcast on video, Inslee signed these two bills off camera. His office didn’t explain why . . .

The Office of the Secretary of State, which assigns numbers to bills based on the order in which they were signed into law, plans to ask a judge for guidance on what to do in this circumstance. Kylee Zabel, a spokesperson for the office, said they have never experienced a situation where a governor signed two bills into law at the same time.”

If you're signing two bills with both hands at the same time off camera to avoid legal clarity, that should be an indication to you that something is happening that shouldn't. The same goes for stretching the bounds of the constitutional veto power beyond its breaking point. “One-Man Lawmaking” indeed.

Updated (3:02 p.m.)

Statement from House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) on today’s partial veto of E3SHB 1091, the Clean Fuel Standard bill:

“Washington Courts have consistently held that as a co-equal branch of government, the legislature is responsible for drafting laws and the executive branch is responsible for implementing them. The Constitution provides the governor only limited powers to veto legislation. The governor’s partial veto today of E3SHB 1091, the clean fuel standard bill, reaches beyond his constitutional powers and we will ask the Washington courts to again rule on the balance of legislative and executive branch powers.”

Additional legislative comments on the Governor's illegal vetoes: 

  • Sen. Braun: “A court ruled that the governor illegally used his veto power in 2019. Today, the governor ignored that by vetoing a subsection of one of his highest priority environmental bills. The Constitution is clear – the governor may not veto anything less than an entire section of a bill. Maybe he’s emboldened by the sweeping authority he continues to have because majority Democrats refused to address emergency-power reform. Maybe he thinks the Supreme Court will overturn the lower court’s ruling. 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.”
     
  • Sen. Billig: "This veto is an overstep of executive power. The governor has attempted to create a power for his office that simply does not exist. The constitution is clear that the governor is permitted only to veto a full section of a bill. In this case he has vetoed a subsection. What’s worse, this is the second time in recent years this governor has attempted to invent such a power. He lost in court then. He will lose again. Make no mistake, the Legislature will use every power at its disposal to push back and preserve the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches as prescribed by the Washington State Constitution."
     
  • Rep. Wilcox: "Governor Inslee is once again overstepping his veto authority and ignoring the state constitution. When this happened in 2019, the Legislature challenged him in court and prevailed. It is good to see that Democratic legislative leaders are again threatening to go to court and hold the governor accountable. We should all join together to send a strong message about the governor's emergency powers, too."
     
  • Sen. Mullet: “This sets a chilling precedent and poisons the well for all future negotiations on virtually any tough issue. 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 . . . The governor has the authority to veto bills or sections of bills. But the Washington State Supreme Court says that he does not have the authority to veto sentences in bills, as he did today. Not only is what he did today bad policy, it is unconstitutional.”

Additional Information
Legislature sues Governor Inslee for unconstitutional vetoes (2019)