Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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In Our View: Inslee’s line-item veto tests power of office

The Columbian

In signing a slate of environmental laws this week, Gov. Jay Inslee once again tested the powers of his office.

Inslee signed a clean fuels standard (House Bill 1091) designed to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. He also signed a cap-and-invest measure (Senate Bill 5126) designed to phase in clean-energy infrastructure and reduce carbon emissions. In the process, he used his line-item veto power to remove clauses requiring lawmakers to agree on a transportation funding package in order for the bills to take effect.

The bills passed largely along partisan lines with support from Democrats (all Southwest Washington lawmakers voted in line with their party caucus), but the partial vetoes drew ire from members of Inslee’s own party.

“The Constitution provides the governor only limited powers to veto legislation,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said. “The governor’s partial veto today of HB 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.”

More than 40 governors have some line-item veto power, often limited to efforts to reduce spending. The president of the United States does not have that power; Congress briefly granted it to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

In Washington, Article III, Section 12 of the state constitution reads, in part: “If any bill presented to the governor contains several sections or appropriation items, he may object to one or more sections or appropriation items while approving other portions of the bill.”

For now, we shall ignore the assumption that the governor is a “he,” but the Legislature might want to address that in the future.

Instead, we shall focus on Inslee’s use of the power and his undermining of what had been hailed as a “grand bargain” among lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said: “This veto is an overstep of executive power. The governor has attempted to create a power for his office that simply does not exist. … 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.”

That remains to be seen; analyzing the intricacies of legal arguments and predicting an outcome is folly. But beyond the legal questions are questions about the political expediency of the move.

Inslee has long sought both a clean-fuel standard and cap-and-invest legislation, and upon signing the bills he hailed “the most ambitious policies in the nation to reduce emissions and address environmental justice in our overburdened communities. But it’s not just ambitious — it is the level of ambition necessary. We have seen the science and have accepted the reality of our charge. We have defeated the fear-mongering and embraced both our responsibility to act and the tremendous opportunity that building a clean future brings.”

The governor’s office argued that Inslee was not party to any bargain and did not consider the legislation and a transportation package to be inextricably linked.

That might be true, but Inslee has placed lawmakers from his party in a difficult position. While Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature, that control is not impenetrable. Grand bargains often are necessary for working with Republicans and keeping moderate Democrats on board.

The courts will decide the extent of Inslee’s veto power. But even if you can do something it doesn’t mean that you should.