OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are butting heads with Gov. Jay Inslee over what they consider a misuse of executive power.
Inslee is taking steps to divert $175 million from ongoing highway projects to remove and replace culverts that impede the passage of salmon to spawning grounds and fish to the ocean.
The state Department of Transportation announced last month that it intends to transfer $70 million from the mega Highway 520 bridge rebuilding project and $30 million from a second huge undertaking to widen several miles of I-5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Those dollars didn’t get spent in the last budget cycle, aren’t needed in this one and will be available in the 2021-23 budget, officials said. No other projects will be affected, they said.
That’s not how lawmakers see it. In their minds, they gave the department authority long ago to move small sums from one project to another for operating efficiency. Nothing of this magnitude was ever imagined. They want the governor to stop and warned “the proposed course of action risks good will.”
“Never before has this tool been used by a Governor to try to increase funding beyond legislatively provided levels established in law, circumventing the Legislature’s authority to write a budget,” wrote the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate transportation committees in a Sept. 27 letter to Inslee.
They insist other projects will be slowed or stalled in the future, to the tune of $175 million, to cover the proposed transfer.
Lawmakers understand Inslee wants to move the state closer to complying with a federal court order to remove hundreds of barriers by 2030. It’s a task with a $3.8 billion price tag.
They allotted $100 million for the effort in the two-year transportation budget. But Inslee made clear in May it wasn’t enough. He ordered the transfer, ticking off Democratic and Republican lawmakers in both chambers.
Privately, several whispered about the irony, given Inslee’s lambasting of President Donald Trump for diverting money from the defense budget to build a border wall. Inslee said that move demonstrated “a clear disdain of congressional authority” — which is kind of how some state lawmakers feel about the governor’s attitude toward their authority.
In the Sept. 27 letter, a quartet of lawmakers said “we will need to work together” on removal of culverts.
“Bypassing the legislative process in the manner proposed here does not solve this matter; we ask you to stop this proposal and engage in a more productive path,” they wrote.
It was signed by Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, and Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, the committee chairmen, and Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, the ranking minority members on each panel.
Inslee isn’t giving ground.
“I had a plan that would have made progress in the current budget. But these legislators failed to find a way to fund the work that is needed to save salmon, live up to tribal treaty rights and comply with the decision from the nation’s highest court,” he said in comments released by his office Tuesday.
Inslee chided them for putting less money toward the effort in this two-year budget cycle than the previous one, then asserting they actually had put in more.
“Their claim that they increased funding for culverts is demonstrably false,” he said. “By our decision to increase the funding, we are staying on schedule to meet the court’s requirements.”
Transportation officials plan to announce another transfer in November.
Lawmakers aren’t sure they can do anything to stop the transfer. But the 2020 legislative session isn’t far away.
There’s plenty of time to butt heads and, they hope, change a mind.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.