Veto Power Put To Legal Test Legislature Goes To Court Over Lowry’s Authority To Reject Portions Of Bills
The Legislature and Gov. Mike Lowry clashed in Thurston County Superior Court on Monday over the governor’s power to veto sections of bills and items in appropriation measures.
There seemed to be little argument that the governor overstepped his constitutional authority in vetoing sections of several nonappropriation bills. But there was strong disagreement over the governor’s power to veto provisions in an appropriations bill rather than the appropriation itself.
An amendment to the state constitution that outlines the governor’s veto powers states the governor “may not object to less than an entire section, except if the section contains one or more appropriation items.”
The state Supreme Court in a 1988 decision overturned a partial veto by then-Gov. Booth Gardner of a bill dealing with motorcycle dealers’ franchises. Gardner’s veto excised only a portion of one section of the bill.
Writing for the court, then-Justice Jim Andersen said it was clear the governor lacked authority to veto less than an entire section of a nonappropriation bill and that a section is determined by the Legislature’s designation of sections in the bill itself.
There has been no clear court guidance on appropriation vetoes, however.
In arguing the Legislature’s case, Tacoma attorney Elvin Vandeberg pointed out that in several instances, Lowry had vetoed only provisions that restricted use of money in the appropriation bills.
For instance, one bill at issue appropriated $89.5 million for the Department of Community Development. The governor didn’t touch the appropriation but did veto a section that said $755,000 of the appropriation “is provided solely for the longterm care ombudsman program.”
Vandeberg argued that Lowry’s action did not constitute an item veto of an appropriation and that the $755,000 should revert to the treasury.
Lowry, on the other hand, contended that the $755,000 should remain with the agency. Assistant Attorney General Maureen Hart argued that point of view Monday.
Hart said that for the governor to comply with the legislative argument, he would have to reduce the appropriation by $755,000. That, she said, is not within the governor’s veto powers.
Hart also went into the philosophy of the governor’s veto powers.
“Fundamental to this case is that the governor acts in a legislative, not an executive capacity when he or she exercises veto authority,” Hart wrote in her brief to the court.
“For example,” Hart wrote, “in challenging the governor’s vetoes of appropriation items, time and time again the Legislature complains that the governor’s action alters legislative intent, as though the legislative process is strictly the province of the House and Senate.
“That is the essence of the veto, to object to legislative intent,” she wrote.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Tom McPhee said he would have a ruling in the case in about two weeks.