Commentary: Low Blow With Vetoes, Gov. Inslee


On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed two major carbon-reduction bills in a giddy bill-signing ceremony at Shoreline Community College. One creates a carefully constructed cap-and-trade system and the other a low-carbon fuel standard.

But, as the governor affixed his signature, he also vetoed key sections in each that were crucial to the bills even getting to his desk. He undercut months of lawmakers' shrewd negotiating, cajoling and compromising that delivered the impressive progress toward reducing the state's carbon emissions. Fellow Democrats in both chambers promise to sue over what they describe as his veto overreach.

Here's the rub. Without Sen. Reuven Carlyle and other key Democratic senators hatching a grand-bargain-style plan that hinged on those vetoed concepts, the governor would be chalking up the 2021 legislative session as just another big whiff for his climate agenda. Yep, he would have been Oh and nine.

For his entire political career, including his unsuccessful 2020 presidential bid, Inslee has fashioned himself as an environmental leader. But, since he took office in 2013, his major bills — year after year after year — failed to gain traction even when fellow Democrats controlled both houses.

Carlyle, chair of the Energy, Environment and Technology Committee, is the architect of what he calls the "cap-and-invest" bill. He introduced it last year without Inslee's support. For this session, with momentum building, the governor finally signed on.

Saying he was never part of any "bargain," Inslee vetoed provisions that tied the climate bills' implementation to passage of a much-needed and ambitious transportation package. A bit heavier political lift, that was the only one of the four grand-bargain bills not accomplished when the Legislature adjourned. Nevertheless, momentum remained for the package to be crafted during a special session — especially with those implementation triggers as the carrot.

Yet, lawmakers say Inslee kept his veto spoiler in his back pocket, never even threatening such a thing through all of the 105 days of the session. No doubt his legal advisers and negotiators were fully apprised. Meanwhile, lawmakers toiled in good faith to craft the package of bills that would reduce carbon, while embracing equity and environmental justice for marginalized communities and setting the stage for the urgently needed transportation package.

Very cleverly played, governor.

Another irony? Last year, Inslee tried to bury the political career of Sen. Mark Mullet of Issaquah, whom Carlyle credits with major heavy lifting to advance the climate bills that the governor took so much credit for on Monday. In 2020, Inslee strongly backed an inexperienced political activist to run against the moderate Mullet because he didn't fall in line with the governor's lefty agenda.

Lucky for the governor! After a hand recount, Mullet won by just 58 votes out of 85,331 valid votes cast. No freshman senator, no matter how obedient to the governor, could have pulled off what Mullet did. Carlyle takes his hat off to his colleague for leaning in to negotiate with lawmakers, environmental groups, business interests and labor despite the governor's hostile incursion: "Mark really broke the code," Carlyle said.

Carlyle, Mullet and Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs struck the grand bargain agreement way back in December. Also key was Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, sponsor of the fourth bill implementing recommendations from the state environmental justice task force. She helped with language to embed environmental justice values in the cap-and-trade bill, which allayed many concerns the more market-based approach would leave some communities behind.

The governor's smash-and-grab vetoes were a blow to the hard-scrabbling coalition. Left up in the air is what is to be done with the huge needs the state faces in transportation.

Though the Legislature approved a limp-along transportation budget, the state's infrastructure system continues to struggle with an irresponsible maintenance backlog, and overdue replacements of the Interstate 5 Columbia River bridges and the westbound Highway 2 trestle between Everett and Lake Stevens, among many other projects. Further hobbling the state is gas tax revenue slashed during the pandemic with cars parked. And all those construction-related jobs would be welcome as the state struggles to recover from the shutdown.

That has many people focused on economic recovery concerned.

"The one thing keeping things going was the pressure from those provisions," noted Neil Strege, vice president of the Washington Roundtable, representing major private employers. "When that is cut out from under you, what's the forcing function?"

Good question. Gov. Inslee talked a good game Monday about the need for an infrastructure package.

"I am deeply committed to work with legislators to pass a transportation revenue package as soon as possible, hopefully by later this year," he said.

You can't have it both ways. Either you will get it done or you won't. About that commitment? His veto speaks loudly and clearly: Not so much.

In an interview Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig and Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, both Democrats, expressed disappointment about the vetoes and said they were working with their lawyers to examine their legal options over one or both vetoes. Expect decision on legal action next month.

As for Mullet, he's frustrated that the governor couldn't move closer to where the people's representatives in the Legislature landed.

Over the years, the governor's climate initiatives "just didn't have the votes," Mullet said of the governor's misses in the past.

"Someone else did the work for him," the senator said. "Instead of appreciating that effort, he has taken actions to discourage people from working together with him in the future."

That's something the governor, at the start of his third four-year term, and his staff will have to live with going forward.