The person who has served as lieutenant governor for the past 20 years says one of the people trying to replace him has no idea what the job actually entails.
Lt. Gov. Brad Owen sent a letter Tuesday to state Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue, saying Habib has publicly made campaign promises to various groups that “will be impossible to keep and are in fact not within the scope of the job.”
In particular, Owen said Habib would overstep his authority as lieutenant governor if he refused to sign legislation that he views as unconstitutional, such as a budget that doesn’t comply with repeated court orders to fully fund public education.
Owen accused Habib of promising to block such legislation to win the support of the statewide teachers’ union, which has urged the Legislature to increase funding for teacher salaries as part of complying with orders in the McCleary school-funding case.
As president of the Senate, the lieutenant governor is tasked with signing legislation to confirm it passed the chamber, but Owen said that job is merely “a ministerial duty.”
“The lieutenant governor does not have nor was ever expected to have veto power over the Legislature,” Owen wrote. “If you wish to veto legislation, perhaps you should run for governor.”
Owen said he thinks Habib plans to use the lieutenant governor’s office as “a tool to implement (a) partisan agenda,” which he said would cause Habib to lose the respect of the Senate and hamper his ability to maintain the chamber’s rules and decorum.
“I am disappointed that you have crossed the line and have made meaningless and ‘Donald Trump’-type proposals to get elected to office,” Owen told Habib. “I call upon you to tone down your rhetoric and dismiss these proposals of yours which demean the office of Lieutenant Governor and will create chaos in the Washington State Senate.”
In a written statement, Habib said Wednesday that Owen’s letter contained “numerous inaccurate statements.”
Habib, a lawyer who teaches legislative procedure at Seattle University, said the lieutenant governor has the authority to rule on procedural motions, and can rule legislation out of order if it contradicts previous rulings by the state Supreme Court, for instance.
In such cases, Habib might rule legislation unconstitutional, he said, but a majority of the Senate could vote to override his ruling, so the legislation would still move forward.
As a method of protest, Habib said he wouldn’t sign legislation he deemed unconstitutional, even if the Senate votes to overrule him. Instead, he would let the senator who serves as a backup Senate president — the president pro tempore — sign the measure so it can advance, he said.
“I have never said that I would veto a bill. Only the governor can do that,” Habib said.
“I have said that I would use every tool at the disposal of the lieutenant governor to oppose an unconstitutional budget that doesn’t meet the court’s order.”
Habib replied formally to Owen on Thursday, suggesting the lieutenant governor could call him or meet with him next time to discuss his concerns.
“I would be more than happy to meet with you, provided that you refrain from making comparisons to Donald Trump or other ad hominem attacks,” Habib wrote.
Ten other people besides Habib are running for the lieutenant governor’s office. They include Republican Phillip Yin, a former TV anchor with a background in business; Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Olympia; Democratic Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens; University Place Councilman Javier Figueroa, a Republican; and Marty McClendon, a Republican from Gig Harbor.
An Aug. 2 primary election will decide which two candidates will advance to the general election in November.