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June 16, 2024

Washington Supreme Court hears challenge to Inslee’s veto pen

3 min read

A challenge to Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto powers is moving its way through the courts, potentially upending the balance of power in Olympia and Washington Democrats’ climate agenda.

Under the Washington Constitution, the governor’s vetopowers are limited to entire bills, sections of bills, and “appropriation items” or the state money behind a proposed law. Judges have frowned on vetos of single words or sentences falling outside of those legal categories. The lines between them have been challenged before.

Two of Inslee’s vetoes related to spending items in the 2019 state transportation budget were invalidated last year in Thurston County Superior Court. This year, the governor is headed to court again over similar questions over his veto pen.

Last month, Inslee vetoed two bills passed by state lawmakers creating a low-carbon fuel standardand a cap and trade program. The vetoes in question struck out language tying the two bills to a larger transportation package freeing two of his top campaign promises from a complicated and controversial plan

The move did not sit well with Inslee’s fellow Democrats, who wrote the two bills as part of a compromise elevating the state’s transportation funding and beefing up the state’s efforts to curb carbon emissions. 

Among the provisions vetoed by Inslee, this session required the state to consult with native tribes before green-lighting new renewable energy projects. The veto drew vocal protests from Paul Chiyokten Wagner, founder of advocacy group Protectors of the Salish Sea, at a bill signing event in May.

In a statement, the National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp described the move as “the most egregious and shameless betrayal of a deal I have ever witnessed from a politician of any party, at any level.”

Inslee has defended his vetos, arguing they were within his constitutional powers and were critical to helping the state meet its statutory goal of seeing net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century.

“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 force violation of state law,” Inslee said in a veto message at the time.

Attorneys representing the state legislature in the case wrote that Inslee’s vetos failed their legal litmus test.

“Washington’s Constitution strikes a careful balance between the Legislature’s prerogatives to craft and organize bills and the Governor’s authority to veto all or part of legislation,” the brief to the state supreme court reads. “The Governor’s excision of only a single sentence within seven larger appropriation items…exceeded the constitutionally-limited scope of the veto power.”

On Tuesday, the state supreme court heard opening arguments on the case from Deputy Solicitor General Alicia Young, who represents Inslee.

Young argued that the two bills exemplified the reciprocal voting or logrolling that the governor’s veto powers were designed to deter. State lawmakers, she said, were not entitled to entangle such important legislation as a political favor.

“The framers authorized the line-item veto to prevent the harmful effects of legislative logrolling in appropriation bills, and this case demonstrates exactly why,” Young said. “The new fuel-type condition would never have passed as a stand-alone measure, as it clearly undermines longstanding statutory objectives to combat climate change and reduce air pollution.”

The justices on the court argued back and forth with Inslee’s defense during the hearing, saying the line between appropriation items and general bill language is a difficult one for the court to draw.

“You know, we have to decide what’s an appropriation item,” said Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud. “And an item, of course, can be an electronic, or an item can and the universe.”

The state supreme court has not signaled when they expect to rule on the case.

This article was originally posted on Washington Supreme Court hears challenge to Inslee’s veto pen

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