Washington Supreme Court

Washington Supreme Court

OLYMPIA — The Washington Supreme Court ruled 7-2 Nov. 10 that Gov. Jay Inlsee overstepped his powers by partially vetoing a transportation budget in 2019.

Although Washington governors can veto individual expenditures, they can’t cut all strings lawmakers attach to the spending, the majority ruled.

Inslee went too far by vetoing provisions that barred the Department of Transportation from considering “fuel type” in funding public transit, the court ruled.

While Inslee could have vetoed the spending, he couldn’t alter the conditions set by lawmakers, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote.

“Those ‘strings’ allow the Legislature to fulfill its constitutional role and to check the power of the executive,” she wrote.

In a dissent, Justice Mary Yu said the decision weakens the governor. “I believe the majority shifts the balance of power too far in favor of the Legislature,” she wrote.

Spokeswoman Tara Lee said the governor’s office was reviewing the decision.

Washington governors have broader veto powers than presidents. The governor can veto sections of bills and trim budgets with line-item vetoes.

Inslee has tested the limits of those powers. This year, he signed cap-and-trade and low-carbon fuel bills, but vetoed conditioning the climate laws on a transportation package.

The veto upset a bargain between lawmakers who advocated climate action and legislators who wanted to increase funding for highways and other transportation projects.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature. The case is the first involving an Inslee veto to go to the state Supreme Court.

In his veto message, Inslee said the fuel-type provision would slow the move to biofuels and electric vehicles.

He argued that the provision also violated a state law that requires the transportation department to consider air quality and energy efficiency in awarding grants.

The court rejected the claim, noting that “fuel type” doesn’t appear in the law.

The court also rejected claims that legislators were trying to slip past the governor a “substantive law” in a spending bill.

The proviso applied only to the transit grants in the budget and didn’t define anyone’s right or eligibility for public services, the court ruled.

Justices Charles Johnson, Debra Stephens, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens, Raquel Montoya-Lewis and Helen Whitener signed the majority opinion.

Justice Steven Gonzales signed Yu’s dissent.

The Building Industry Association of Washington sued Inslee in 2019 over his partial veto of an orca-recovery bill.

Lawmakers conditioned higher fines for disturbing riverbeds on removing gravel to protect eroding farmland in Grays Harbor, Snohomish and Whatcom counties.

Inslee vetoed the gravel removal reference while approving the higher fines.

The Court of Appeals Division II ruled the BIAW didn’t have standing to sue because it hadn’t shown its members had been harmed by the veto.

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