Gov. Jay Inslee gets slapped with a lawsuit, and democracy is better for it

Forty-four U.S. states have given their governors line-item veto authority; it’s a chance for a chief executive to split the difference on a bill approved by the state legislature, signing most of it into law while removing sections the governor can’t abide.

Washington is one of those states, and our governors through the years have used the authority to counter wasteful spending, pork barrel politics and the Legislature’s formidable power of the purse.

In 2017, for example, Jay Inslee used a line-item veto to block lawmakers from extending a Boeing tax break to other Washington manufacturers. Though the bill had bipartisan support, it was his right to selectively wield the veto pen.

This year, Inslee tried something different. Something more surgical — and legally questionable.

Instead of vetoing a full section of legislation, he cherry picked a single sentence from seven provisions in the 2019-21 transportation budget.

His edits prompted Republicans in the Legislature — as well as Democrats, who control both chambers — to call foul and file a lawsuit

They, too, were right to do so.

Both then and now, elected leaders felt compelled to test Washington’s foundational system of checks and balances — a muscle-toning exercise that’s necessary from time to time to ensure a healthy democracy.

Lawmakers are suing Inslee for a series of one-sentence vetoes in the state’s nearly $10 billion transportation budget. Each time he came across the words “fuel type may not factor in the grant selection process,” he wielded his veto pen like a scalpel.

It’s clear our green governor didn’t want $190 million of appropriated grant funding going to any potential fossil fuel project; he wrote in his veto message that WSDOT should “consider energy efficiency issues, and federal and state air quality requirements in selecting programs and projects.”

We get it. Fossil fuels are bad. Clean energy is good. But objection to Inslee’s unorthodox maneuver has little to do with environmental policy. The lawsuit isn’t about the fight against climate change; if it were, he’d have the backing of his fellow Democrats.

It’s about coloring outside the lines of the Washington Constitution.

In a moment of institutional solidarity, Democrats and Republicans on the House Executive Rules Committee and the Senate Facilities & Operations Committee voted unanimously to sue.

Yes, lawmakers could have convened for a vote and overridden Inslee’s vetoes with a two-thirds majority of both chambers. But both parties wisely considered the importance of precedent.

Senate Republican Caucus Chair Randi Becker (R-Eatonville) said in a statement that legal action was being taken out of duty. Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-Covington) summed up the decision: “We believe the executive branch overstepped its constitutional authority.”

Inslee also invoked the Constitution but used it as justification for his edits. In his May veto message, he wrote: “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 governor may sincerely believe the sentences he cut out conflict with Washington statute. But one-man lawmaking behind closed doors raises serious concerns.

Fittingly, it will be the third branch of government, the court system, that gets to flex its own checks-and-balance muscles while sorting out this situation.

Meanwhile, legislators are still smarting from another bit of sleight of hand from Inslee, which he also used to manipulate the transportation budget to his liking.

The governor snatched $175 million in leftover funds that lawmakers had appropriated for transportation projects. He redirected the money toward removing road culverts that block fish passage, a mammoth undertaking that will take several years and cost billions of dollars.

It was a switcheroo that Rep. Jake Fey (D-Tacoma) criticized in a TNT op-ed in June.

“I understand the governor’s urgency about something he cares about,” wrote Fey, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. “But we have to do this right.”

Indeed, the Constitution requires it.

Fey hinted at the time that legislators might take Inslee’s cash grab to court. But it’s not part of the line-item veto case they’re pursuing now.

So far the veto disagreement has been downright genteel. “This is a respectful difference of opinion,” the governor said. “We look forward to forthcoming guidance from our courts.”

Until then, we hope Inslee, who’s seeking a third term as governor after withdrawing from the Democratic presidential field, has learned a little something about executive power.

Objectionable sentences can’t just disappear, and legislatively designated funds can’t just float to your preferred projects. It’s a pen, sir, not a magic wand.