State high court hears arguments in challenge of Inslee veto powers

OLYMPIA — Petty disputes at the statehouse often confine themselves to negotiating rooms or floor speeches, or perhaps a little low-key payback down the road.

But on Tuesday, the squabble between the Washington Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee over his use of partial vetoes played out in far grander fashion: before the Washington Supreme Court.

In oral arguments, the justices heard the case known as Washington State Legislature vs. Jay Inslee. It’s a legal struggle that could tweak the balance of power between two of Washington’s separate branches of government.

The legal struggle has come to a head just weeks after the governor frustrated lawmakers with another controversial veto that could draw a legal challenge, when he signed into law the new clean-fuels legislation.

Washington’s constitution limits a governor’s veto authority to full bills, and sections of bills or appropriation items — spending — in those bills.

The case involved in Tuesday’s hearing stretches back to 2019, when Inslee signed a new, two-year statewide transportation budget — and vetoed lines inside sections of the bill.

The language he vetoed would have prohibited state transportation officials from considering different fuel types as a factor in choosing grantees for some grant programs being administered.

The governor’s lawyers have argued that the vetoes targeted appropriation items, and thus were allowable. They have also called the vetoes necessary to comply with other state laws to fight climate change with methods like switching transportation fuels over to biofuels or electricity.

In a letter to lawmakers at the time, Inslee explained his reasoning: “While my veto authority is generally limited to subsections or appropriation items in an appropriation bill, in this very rare and unusual circumstance I have no choice but to veto a single sentence in several subsections to prevent a constitutional violation and to prevent a forced violation of state law.”

The Washington Legislature sued to challenge those vetoes, and last year, a Thurston County Superior Judge ruled that the governor overstepped his authority.

The court generally defers to the Legislature’s designation of what is considered a section inside a bill, wrote Judge Carol Murphy, “unless it is obviously designed to circumvent the governor’s veto power.”

But the 2019-21 transportation budget’s relevant sections do “not show obvious manipulation” to circumvent the governor’s powers, Murphy wrote in the ruling.

“It is the governor’s burden to show such manipulation, and, here, that burden has not been met,” added Murphy.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court justices lobbed question after question to both sides — sometimes skeptically — as they considered a case that could potentially tip the balance of power between the executive branch and the legislative branch.

They didn’t always sound thrilled.

“You know, we have to decide what’s an appropriation item,” said Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud at one point. “And an item, of course, can be an electron, or an item can be the universe.”

During the hearing, an attorney for Inslee argued that, among other things, the single-line vetoes were striking down appropriation items and were therefore valid.

“The framers authorized the line-item veto to prevent the harmful effects of legislative logrolling in appropriations bills, and this case demonstrates exactly why,” Alicia Young, the attorney representing Inslee, told the justices Tuesday.

“The new fuel-type condition would never have passed as a standalone measure, as it clearly undermines longstanding statutory objectives to combat climate change and reduce air pollution,” added Young, who is a deputy solicitor general with the Attorney General’s Office.

Lawyers for the Legislature — who are also represented by the Attorney General’s Office — have argued against that interpretation.

“Washington’s Constitution strikes a careful balance between the Legislature’s prerogatives to craft and organize bills and the Governor’s authority to veto all or part of legislation,” according to a brief filed before the court by the Legislature’s attorneys. “The Governor’s excision of only a single sentence within seven larger appropriation items … exceeded the constitutionally-limited scope of the veto power.”