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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Legislators sue Inslee over vetoes in transportation bill

OLYMPIA – Although the Capitol is mostly quiet for the summer, there’s a constitutional dispute brewing below the dome between the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee over vetoes in part of the 2019 transportation budget. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – The Legislature is taking Gov. Jay Inslee to court, saying he overstepped his constitutional powers by vetoing sentences in the state’s 2019 transportation budget.

The state Constitution allows a governor to veto sections of a bill while signing the rest of it into law. But Inslee vetoed sentences, within certain sections of that budget, which said the type of fuel being used can’t be a factor in receiving certain state grants.

The transportation budget passed unanimously in both houses, but the bill wasn’t signed until after the Legislature adjourned for the year. In an even rarer show of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans from both chambers announced Thursday they will file suit in Thurston County Superior Court over the vetoes.

In an email announcing the lawsuit, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, described the challenge as one of the “checks and balances woven throughout our constitution.” Inslee described it in his response email as “a respectful difference of opinion.”

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, used slightly sterner language, saying the text of what was vetoed isn’t really the issue.

“It’s the fact that the governor can’t be allowed to overstep his constitutional authority,” Schoesler wrote in the Senate Republicans’ email. “This is why we have separate branches of government. If this is allowed to stand, it would further damage the dwindling trust the Legislature has in the governor.”

The dispute involves more than $190 million in state grants set aside for public transportation projects around the state. Different subsections say certain amounts of state money can be awarded to transit agencies for special needs riders, vanpool programs, regional mobility projects, commute-trip reduction and transit coordination. Each subsection describing the various amounts contains a sentence that “fuel type may not be a factor in the grant selection process.”

Inslee left the dollar amounts and the other details of the various grant programs intact, but vetoed the sentence that allows any fuel type to be used by the organization requesting the grant.

Those sentences, known as budget provisos, indirectly amend an existing law that requires energy efficiency to be part of the grant selection process, Inslee said in his veto message. It also conflicts with a state mandate to transition to zero-emission vehicles, he said.

Those sentences are making a policy change to existing law, which violates a constitutional prohibition against indirectly amending a statute, Inslee said at the time.

But a 1974 amendment to the constitution also says a governor “may not object to less than an entire section, except that if the section contain one or more appropriation items he may object to any such appropriation item or items.”

The state Supreme Court may eventually be asked to decide whether the governor or the legislators are correctly interpreting the constitution.