Washington’s Supreme Court delivered Gov. Jay Inslee an overdue remedial lesson in the state Constitution Nov. 10. Inslee’s abuse of line-item vetoes to tinker with the 2019 transportation budget overreached his authority, the court ruled.
The Legislature must take one of two paths forward, and soon. The first option is making good on longstanding promises to challenge other Inslee abuse of line-item veto power, now that the high court has shown willingness to rebuke this behavior. The second is doing the hard and necessary work to pass a long-range transportation package and make the argument moot.
The 7-2 court ruling should equip legislative leaders to pursue action now. The court’s decision struck down Inslee’s attempt to veto a single sentence that appeared seven times in the budget to change restrictions on a fuel-grant program. The governor’s authority to make partial vetoes does not extend into meddling with the fine print so minutely, the court found. In 1974, 54% of voters approved a constitutional amendment specifically curtailing such abuses. The pro statement in the voter’s guide warned an unchecked governor could act “as an unseparated third house of the Legislature to alter measures substantially prior to signing them into law.”
All these years later, Inslee has read that to be part of his job description, disregarding court rulings going back decades. As a former legislator and member of Congress, this third-term governor should not require such judicial enforcement to understand the concept of separation of powers. Even as the 2019 vetoes awaited judgment, Inslee stretched his power again earlier this year. He dipped his veto pin into newly-passed environmental bills and again partial-vetoed words and subsections.
This overreach hurt the state’s push to mend dire transportation needs by unwinding a careful legislative compromise. The so-called “grand bargain” made new state carbon limits contingent on passing a badly needed infrastructure package — until, that is, Inslee took his eraser to the linkage and incensed moderates.
The inadequacy and disrepair of the state’s roads, bridges, rails and ferries is beyond dispute. Inslee himself pointed to a deferred-maintenance backlog in March and declared “the jig is up” on infrastructure delays. Yet the same governor proved himself unwilling to put his policies where his mouth is just two months later, abusing line-item authority to disconnect this need from his environmental agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig and House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, both Democrats, condemned the governor for exceeding his power and said lawsuits were coming. Now six months later, they have not delivered. Billig said Tuesday through a spokesperson, “We will sue over that veto, and that is still the plan” but gingerly left the timing unanswered. Jinkins said through a spokesperson that caucus leaders “hope to have the final decision resolved by the end of the year.”
Restoring the linkage between the environmental legislation and transportation policy would force Inslee and other climate hawks to push for infrastructure instead of punting that issue indifferently along. Pushing through a meaningful transportation package would nullify Inslee’s excessive manipulation and save the taxpayers a court fight. Either path requires action, and time is precious. As Inslee said, “the jig is up.”