OLYMPIA – For most people, an emergency is something that usually requires flashing lights and sirens. For legislators, an emergency is something that requires a law take effect right away, rather than waiting the standard 90 days during which citizens might overturn it.
State Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, thinks her fellow legislators have been too quick to call something an emergency, tacking the designation onto nearly 1,000 bills that became law since 1997.
“Emergency” legislation has become routine, she told the Senate Government Operations Committee. “Over the years, it’s been misused.”
Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center agreed, telling the committee laws with emergencies over the last two decades have included providing money for the Mariners stadium, a Sonics arena and a NASCAR track; requiring apprentices to be used on public works projects; expanding the health care exchange for federal health care reform; and overturning requirements for supermajority votes on tax increases that voters had previously passed.
“It should be used sparingly, not just to avoid political inconvenience,” Mercier said.
No bills have passed either chamber at this point in the session, but a check of the Legislature’s website indicates that of the 901 bills introduced through Monday, at least 68 have emergency clauses.
An emergency clause makes it all but impossible for opponents to gather enough signatures to subject a newly passed law to a referendum and allow voters to overturn it, Bailey said.
She wants to make it more difficult for the Legislature to declare an emergency, with a constitutional amendment requiring any emergency clause be debated separately, and only added to a bill if 60 percent of both houses agree, rather than the current simple majority. The higher threshold wouldn’t be needed on budget bills, which routinely need to take effect sooner than 90 days because they pass so close to the end of the state’s fiscal periods.
Bailey, who this year moved from the House to the Senate, proposed similar legislation for several years but never received a hearing in that chamber. With a Republican-dominated coalition in charge of the Senate, she got a hearing Monday, and could see a Senate vote because the amendment has strong support from GOP members.
Some of those co-sponsors, however, have emergency clauses on some of their pending legislation where the need for urgency could be questioned, such as requiring ballots be in the hands of county elections officers by 8 p.m. on election night or setting up veterans treatment courts or changing certain provisions for the state’s 101-year-old workers’ compensation system. None of those bills would be sidetracked by Bailey’s constitutional amendment, even if the Legislature passes it. An amendment also would need voter approval in November.