In the final round of bill signing on May 21, Gov. Jay Inslee unleashed a one-two combo of executive power the likes of which state lawmakers had never seen.
First, he vetoed a sentence repeated in six successive sections of the transportation budget, each time poisoning a different bucket of money for transit.
Then, he ordered $175 million be shifted from five highway projects to removing and replacing culverts impeding the passage of salmon to spawning grounds, and fish to the ocean.
Though separate and unrelated actions, each appears to set a precedent. Inslee’s top advisers last week could not cite another example of a governor vetoing a single sentence in a budget bill or asserting executive authority to redirect such a large sum of transportation dollars absent involvement of lawmakers.
The veto involved grant programs supporting bus service, vanpool programs and other multi-modal projects. Under Inslee, laws have been passed requiring providers of public transit services to stop using gasoline-powered vehicles and switch to ones fueled by electricity or biofuel or other alternatives.
In the bill, lawmakers wrote that “Fuel type may not be a factor in the grant selection process.” This would allow grants to go to entities using gas-fueled vehicles in defiance of the alternative fuels law.
The budget, with the language, passed nearly unanimously in both chambers.
Inslee could have vetoed each section — a typical response for problematic language — but that would have wiped out $200 million of transit funding. He wasn’t going to be stymied either.
“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,” he wrote in his veto message.
Lawmakers’ options to push back are limited. Trying to override the veto is out since this year’s session is done. A lawsuit could be filed to determine if Inslee exceeded the veto powers bestowed upon him in the state constitution.
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and the lead budget writer, said he understood the governor’s motivations and had questions about the legality but didn’t expect a challenge.
Republicans, however, might.
This sets a precedent if there is no pushback, said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the ranking Republican on the transportation panel.
With the culverts, the state is under a federal court order to remove hundreds of barriers by 2030, a task with an estimated price tag of $3.8 billion.
Lawmakers earmarked $100 million for the effort in the two-year transportation budget. Inslee’s action boosts the spending to $275 million, the amount he proposed in December but was unable to get agreement on with lawmakers through the 105-day session.
“This is a matter of urgency. And not just because the courts have told us so,” Inslee said Tuesday. “The fate of our salmon is intrinsically tied to our tribes, our orca, our economy and our very identity.”
Inslee is diverting the money from five projects. These are not savings but dollars that will not be spent by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Under existing law, the Department of Transportation can move around a couple hundred thousand dollars between projects, and then let lawmakers know later. With $175 million, the governor’s budget director needs to consult with transportation committee leaders before moving a dime. An agency spokeswoman said that will happen.
That doesn’t alleviate the lawmakers’ concerns.
“We do have to pay for those culverts.” said Hobbs, who proposed an ill-fated carbon tax to cover the costs. “What I am worried about is the precedent this sets that the executive branch can transfer so much money without legislative approval. And where will the money come from?”
King added: “What are we not going to do when we put that money to culverts?”
Inslee’s politically macho move brings to mind an exerting of executive power by President Donald Trump when he sought to go around Congress to fund the border wall.
Inslee deemed it a “legally dubious” maneuver at the time and chided Trump for acting like “some kind of emperor.”
David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff, said last week — equating the two uses of executive power “is not a sophisticated view.”
“It is vastly different. We have the authority” to spend the money, he said. “It is not contrary to what the Legislature has said. It is a different amount.”
A big difference. When combined with removing a few words, it is a rare political knockdown for the governor.
Contact The Herald (Everett) columnist Jerry Cornfield at 360-352-8623, jcornfield@herald net.com or on Twitter, @dospueblos.