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Dec. 13, 2019

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In Our View: Inslee’s unprecedented veto deserves scrutiny

The Columbian
Published: September 8, 2019, 6:03am

At first glance, it might appear to be an unnecessary turf war. But the Legislature’s lawsuit against Gov. Inslee raises important questions about checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches of state government.

In May, the governor crossed out a 12-word sentence in the transportation budget before signing the legislation. That is where things get complicated.

Under state law, Washington’s governor has the power to use a line-item veto — crossing out sections of a bill before signing it. This is not unique; according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 44 governors have the ability to eliminate parts of a bill, though the scope of that ability varies from state to state. The president of the United States does not have any line-item veto power on legislation passed by Congress.

Under state law, energy efficiency standards are listed as criteria to be considered in the grant selection process for transit services, including the purchase of buses and vanpools. In this year’s transportation budget, lawmakers included the sentence, “Fuel type may not be a factor in the grant selection process.” That is the portion Inslee struck.

Inslee says the bill passed by the Legislature would violate existing law. In his veto message, he wrote, “While my veto authority is generally limited to subsections or appropriation items in an appropriation bill, in this 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.”

Last week, the Senate Facilities & Operations Committee and the House Executive Rules Committee voted to challenge the veto in court. “It isn’t about the substance (of the sentence),” Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, told The (Everett) Herald. “It is about other issues that could come up in the future. I think that’s what concerns lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”

Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for the governor, said: “It’s fair to say that there is no known legal precedent in Washington that specifically authorizes a veto of a single sentence.”

That calls for scrutiny by the courts. If Inslee’s use of a line-item veto is unique, questions must be answered about the governor’s ability to usurp the Legislature. The legislative branch, after all, brings together elected officials from both parties representing all regions of the state. It is the bedrock of representative democracy.

While critics might assert that line-item veto power violates democratic principles, governors often find it to be a useful tool for preventing wasteful spending. There is a reason nearly every state affords its governor such power, but there must be limits.

In 1977, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Dan Evans had essentially rewritten a bill through his use of a partial veto. And during the 1990s, lawmakers successfully sued Gov. Mike Lowry and Gov. Gary Locke in separate cases over line-item vetoes. But Inslee’s assertion that the bill, as written, would violate existing law apparently places the current situation in a different category.

That will be up to the courts, further highlighting the role of checks and balances in ensuring an effective state government that follows established protocol and is beholden to the law.

A lawsuit between the legislative and executive branches might seem to be an extreme reaction to a difference over 12 words in a bill, but it will answer important questions that define the powers held by each branch.

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