Back in May, Gov. Jay Inslee celebrated a big win on climate legislation as he signed into law two bills meant to reduce the state's carbon emissions. But before doing so, he vetoed key provisions in each proposal that tied their implementation to a yet-to-materialize statewide transportation-spending package.
Those requirements were part of a "grand bargain" that made the climate bills viable in the first place, incensed lawmakers said, and the governor was clearly usurping the Legislature's powers.
Criticism from Inslee's own party was as swift and unequivocal as it was breathless: wells had been "poisoned" and "chilling precedents" set.
"The governor's partial veto today of ... the clean-fuel standard bill reaches beyond his constitutional powers," said House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma.
"This veto is an overstep," said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane. "I am concerned that undoing good faith negotiations will severely hurt our ability to reach agreement on important policies in the future."
Inslee's unfortunate dismissal of the Legislature's work undermined what must be an equal branch of government. His actions demanded a swift legal response and lawmakers promised they would act quickly.
Cut to months later and that tough talk seems tempered.
"We're waiting on legal advice and legal analysis from the attorney general's office," Jinkins now says. "There's no rush on a suit."
There is some legal nuance to the current matter. Inslee's rejection of a subsection in House Bill 1091, which establishes a low-carbon fuel standard, clearly runs afoul of the law. His veto on Senate Bill 5126, which creates a cap-and-trade system, is more ambiguous but both instances merit timely consideration by the courts.
The last time the Legislature sued over an Inslee veto was in 2019, when the governor struck lines inside sections of the state's two-year transportation budget. A Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled the veto was unconstitutional and the case is now under review by the Washington state Supreme Court.
The current legislative foot dragging is unacceptable and seems to have more to do with shifting political realities and hopes than with any legal concerns.
Part of the reason for yoking the climate bills to transportation was to force action on a much-needed transportation package. That need didn't go away with Inslee's vetoes, nor can it wait until next year. The governor must call a special session and the Legislature must address major state needs, such as the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River and the U.S. 2 trestle in Snohomish County.
Lawmakers believe that if a $1 trillion federal infrastructure deal comes together, it would likely make it easier to pass state transportation legislation.
"All of this is moot if the Legislature passes a transportation investment package," Billig said. "The legal question is still there, but the sort of substantive implications are alleviated if we meet the standard."
Those practical matters aside, Jinkins and Billig still say that principle must be defended, but the wait-and-see approach diminishes their arguments. The lawmakers point out there is no statute of limitations, and whether they take their grievance to court this month or next, makes no difference, but Democrats were right back in May.
The governor's actions not only undercut the process of negotiation and compromise that gets legislation passed, but they also upset the balance of power and threaten to leave the legislative branch diminished.
Lawmakers may think there's no rush, but the stakes say otherwise.