State lawmakers from Southwest Washington balked at Gov. Jay Inslee’s partial veto on a pair of carbon-curbing bills Monday, a move that legislators on both sides of the aisle are calling an overreach of the governor’s powers.
Inslee signed two ambitious pieces of climate legislation this week: a bill that empowers the state’s Department of Ecology to implement a carbon cap-and-trade program and a bill establishing a low-carbon fuel standard.
However, the governor vetoed subsections of the bills that would have tied the enactment of those policies to a sweeping transportation funding package. That link was a key part of the deal that helped usher the bills through the Senate lastduring the session.
“I tend to agree with that, but the courts are going to decide,” Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, told The Columbian on Tuesday. “Some of those veto decisions, they cross a line in terms of separation of powers.”
Just before the 2021 legislative session concluded on April 25, lawmakers passed the two climate bills with the caveat that they’d be linked to a 16-year transportation funding package. That transportation package didn’t make it through the session — legislators ran out of time.
Wylie, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said a small group of lawmakers will start meeting after Memorial Day to restart work on the package. A special session of the full Legislature is tentatively scheduled for September, she said.
While she agrees with the governor on the climate policies (and voted for both bills when they passed the House), Wylie said she wonders how the governor’s move to unlink them from the broader transportation legislation will hinder the ongoing work on that package.
“I think that depending on how strongly the Senate feels about that linkage, it could make the negotiation for a package more difficult, and it could take away the momentum that linking them was supposed to produce. That’s my concern,” Wylie said.
State officials will also need to keep a close eye on President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion federal infrastructure plan to ensure Washington gets a larger slice of the pie, she added.
“It’s a sense of urgency that we need to be ready for when there’s a federal package. Because the federal package, when it comes out, will be better for those who are ready for it,” Wylie said.
The bills signed on Monday each mark enormous leaps forward in climate policy, cementing long-sought victories for Inslee and Democrats.
Senate Bill 5126 established a carbon cap-and-trade program, requiring major polluters to purchase and swap carbon allowances from the state with the eventual goal of pushing the state’s net emissions to zero by 2050.
The other piece of legislation, House Bill 1091, imposes increasingly cleaner standards for fuel used in cars, trucks, trains, boats and airplanes.
Both bills were effectively shelved until the state passed the transportation package, a key piece of the negotiations that helped get them over the finish line in the Senate. Inslee’s partial veto essentially invalidates that provision.
‘Never a grand bargain’
In a statement to the Seattle Times, Inslee’s office said there “was never a grand bargain, as far as the governor’s role in the process is concerned.”
“Even without a veto a bargain that potentially delays urgent action on climate change and still not guarantee a transportation package is no bargain at all,” the statement said.
Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican from La Center and the minority caucus chair, voted against both bills. She said in an email Tuesday that she would have preferred a full veto, but that the partial veto “clearly seems to be unconstitutional.”
“They’re going to function like a pair of regressive taxes, and because of these partial vetoes, people in marginalized communities will feel the financial hit from these policies even sooner,” Rivers wrote.
Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, called the move illegal.
Braun and Rivers both cited a similar 2-year-old case that’s still working its way through the court system. In 2019, Inslee vetoed a subsection of a bill aimed at increasing chinook salmon stock. The portion he struck down would have skyrocketed fines for violating coastal construction regulations.
“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,” Braun wrote in a statement Monday.
Republicans have been arguing for more than a year that the governor has been overstepping his emergency powers during COVID-19, but legislative efforts to impose more oversight on that power failed to pick up much traction during the session.
“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,” Braun wrote.
Wylie countered that Inslee’s response to the pandemic — hailed by epidemiologists and health policy experts as among the best in the country — required nimble, fast-thinking leadership.
For a governor who’s long considered climate change a similarly urgent issue, tying climate policy to a transportation package “that’s going to have to please everybody” must have been frustrating, she said.
“There’s a lot that I agree with the governor on. I think that the boundaries that come up in this kind of situation are boundaries that have to be clarified, and this will work its way through (the courts),” Wylie said.