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Inslee signs major climate bills, but not without partial vetoes; Legislative leadership threaten lawsuit

UPDATED: Mon., May 17, 2021

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed five bills Monday pertaining to climate change.   (Ted S. Warren)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed five bills Monday pertaining to climate change.  (Ted S. Warren)

OLYMPIA – After years of fighting for statewide climate policies, Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday signed into law five bills that aim to address climate change in Washington state.

But Inslee also vetoed parts of the legislation, a move that is expected to spark a lawsuit from leaders in his own party.

The slate of new laws signed Monday will put caps on carbon emissions, create a low carbon fuel standard, limit single-use plastics and reduce the amount of fluorinated gases from air conditioners.

“We are at our best today in Washington state by adopting the best climate change policies in America today,” Inslee said.

At a bill signing at Shoreline Community College, Inslee signed two of the most controversial, and likely most impactful, pieces of climate legislation this session: a low carbon fuel standard and a “cap-and-trade” policy.

Both policies had a line that connected the implementation of the proposals to a 5-cent gas tax increase – a key compromise reached by legislators.

The line was an attempt from Democrats to strike a bargain on decreasing carbon while increasing funding for new roads, highways and other transportation projects.

Inslee vetoed the line in both policies, angering Democratic leadership in the Legislature who said it was the product of weeks of negotiation among lawmakers.

In a veto message, Inslee said the delayed effective date of the policies “unnecessarily hinders our state’s ability to combat climate change, one of the greatest challenges facing our state and the world today.”

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the vetoes “undermine the legislative compromises that allowed these bills to reach the governor’s desk in the first place.”

He said he agreed to support those compromises in order to pass those bills.

“I am concerned that undoing good faith negotiations will severely hurt our ability to reach agreement on important policies in the future,” Billig said in a statement.

Billig joined House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, in calling for court action against the veto in the low carbon fuel standard bill, which they say overstepped his power as noted in the state Constitution.

The state Constitution allows for a governor to veto sections of a bill while signing the rest into law, but Inslee vetoed a specific provision.

The Legislature took Inslee to court in 2019 after he vetoed sentences in certain areas of the transportation budget. A Thurston County Superior Court judge invalidated those vetoes.

“He lost in court then,” Billig said. “He will lose again.”

Jinkins said in a statement the courts have consistently held that the Legislature is responsible for drafting laws and the executive branch is responsible for implementing them.

Braun called Inslee’s subsection veto “illegal.”

“That alone says a lot about why our political system has checks and balances on one-person rule,” he said in a statement.

In a similar move last week, Inslee vetoed a section of a bill that would have required all new cars in the state to be electric beginning in 2030. That part of the bill was contingent on a road user fee for most vehicles.

In a veto message, Inslee said the goal of 100% electric vehicles is “too important to tie to the implementation of a separate policy like the road usage charge.”

Inslee said a transportation revenue package still will get done, but he does not want to delay the implementation of the climate policies to do so.

Sponsor of the low carbon fuels standard Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, said the vetoes do not change the urgency of the Legislature to pass a transportation package. He agreed that the climate policies should go into effect as soon as possible, and he did not think tying the policies to a transportation package would have delayed the implementation.

The Legislature would have likely passed a new transportation package before the 2023 start date anyway, Fitzgibbon told The Spokesman-Review.

“In the end I don’t think it would’ve introduced delay, but it would’ve introduced uncertainty,” he said. “I’m happy to see some of that uncertainty removed.”

Fitzgibbon said he does not agree with the decision to go to court over the issue. While the vetoes add some new elements, he still called Monday a “historic day” for the state’s fight against climate change.

Under the new laws, fuel companies must start reducing their emissions a little each year in order to hit a statewide goal of emissions 20% below 2017 levels by 2038. Fuel companies can clean up their fuels by producing biofuels or mixed fuels. If they can’t, they would be required to purchase “credits” to make up for emissions that go above the allowed amount.

Washington follows California and Oregon as the last of the West Coast states to implement a clean-fuel standard.

The cap-and-trade plan puts a cap on carbon pollution and greenhouse gas emissions beginning in 2023. The largest polluters in the state would need to either clean up their work to meet the cap or purchase allowances from the state. The state would receive the revenue from those allowances.

Washington joins California with having a cap-and-trade plan.

In a statement from Megan Baldino, head of corporate communications at BP, the oil and gas company applauded Inslee for signing the bill as it could put the state on a path to net zero emissions by 2050.

“BP’s ambition is to be a net zero company by 2050 or sooner and to help the world get to net zero,” the statement read. “We look forward to working with state agencies as they develop rules to implement this program and help make our shared ambition a reality.”

Inslee also signed bills that would limit single-use plastics by restaurants. By mid-2023, foam containers made of a type of plastic known as expanded polystyrene, such as the “clam shell” takeout boxes will be banned and recyclable materials will be encouraged.

He also signed a bill that limits the amount of fluorinated gases. It authorizes the Department of Ecology to create a threshold for the amount of fluorinated gases used in new air conditioning and stationary refrigerants as well as establishes a recycling program for used air conditioners and refrigerants.

Inslee also signed a bill that would implement recommendations of the Environmental Justice Task Force, which would require an environmental justice analysis on all decision making and an equal distribution of environmental investments statewide. The goal of the legislation is to help communities who disproportionately experience the effects of a worsening environment, such as people of color and low-income communities.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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