A “respectful difference of opinion” generates a legislative lawsuit over a gubernatorial veto.

Last week the Legislature filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Inslee’s veto of language in a transportation bill. In the Spokesman-Review, Jim Camden reported,

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.

The Association of Washington Business writes,

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said this is an important separation of powers issue. House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said “it’s important for the court to rule so both the Legislature and governor have a clear understanding of their authority in the future.”

The last time this issue came up in the courts was in 2003, when lawmakers sued then-Gov. Gary Locke for a similar veto. Locke didn’t fight the lawsuit; instead, in a one-day special session, he withdrew the vetoes. The high court had invalidated a Locke veto in 1999 on these grounds, while in 1997 upholding vetoes from then-Gov. Mike Lowry in 1994.

The governor says,

“We don’t believe this issue has been addressed by the courts and we understand the Legislature’s desire to settle the question about important institutional powers. 

“The language was vetoed because it indirectly amends an existing statute through the transportation budget. Our Constitution does not allow laws to be changed indirectly. The language would have prevented the Washington State Department of Transportation from considering clean fuels as a factor in the grant selection process of nearly $190 million in multimodal grant funding, contradicting that statute’s mandate to consider ‘energy efficiency issues’ in the grant selection process.

“This is a respectful difference of opinion, and we look forward to forthcoming guidance from our courts.”

Camden’s reporting points out what’s at stake. To us, it seems nontrivial.

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.”

Courthouse News cites statements by leading Democrats.

Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said in a statement that the lawsuit was about preserving the balance of power.

“This is an institutional lawsuit with one branch of government taking issue with the actions of another. We believe the executive branch overstepped its constitutional authority with these vetoes. Therefore, we are moving forward with a lawsuit to ask the judiciary to rule on this dispute and provide additional clarity on executive veto authority.”

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, underscored that point in a statement of his own.

“The checks and balances woven throughout our constitution are essential to a healthy democracy,” Billig said. “This lawsuit is one of those checks.”

More at the Associated Press