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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Emergency needs stricter definition

The Spokesman-Review

Students of Washington’s Constitution know that the people of this state reserved significant lawmaking authority to themselves. They elect senators and representatives to do most of the work, but when they feel strongly enough about an issue to draft petitions and collect thousands of signatures, citizens can enact their own laws.

They also can cancel what the Legislature has approved. Unless, that is, the displeasing law was “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its existing public institutions.”

That language, found in Article 2, Section 1 of the Washington Constitution, is the heart of what lawmakers know as an emergency clause. When they put one on a bill – which they did on 98 measures approved this year – the legislative process changes in two significant ways:

“The bill becomes law immediately after the governor signs it. Other bills must wait until 90 days after the legislative session ends.

“The bill is exempt from the referendum process. No matter how many signatures they collect, citizens are stuck with it.

That would be reasonable if lawmakers added an emergency clause only when the conditions genuinely matched the criteria spelled out in Article 2, Section 1.

This year, the Legislature passed 523 bills. Those 98 emergency clauses thus insulated more than 18 percent of the 2005 legislative output from citizen referendums.

Do state lawmakers really concentrate that heavily on emergency matters? That depends on how frantic you are to allow certain off-road vehicles to be used on non-highway roads. Or how quickly the state needs to lift the business and occupation tax from businesses that can, preserve, freeze, process and dehydrate fresh produce. Or to exempt trams that ferry people between horse tracks and their cars from state vehicle licensing.

Yes, there are weightier issues for which the emergency clause was used by lawmakers in 2005, but the measure of seriousness was more a matter of politics than public peace, health and safety. Repealing the tax limitations embodied in Initiative 601, for example, or increasing gasoline taxes.

On Thursday, in a case challenging the I-601 repeal, the state Supreme Court will be asked to clarify and clamp down on what has become, as the Association of Washington Business put it in a brief, “promiscuous” use of the emergency clause in Olympia.

In some past rulings, the court has deferred too readily to the Legislature to decide what defines an emergency. Consequently, lawmakers have slapped it increasingly on legislation they perceive as vulnerable to voter uprisings. The court would do the public a service by requiring lawmakers to interpret the emergency clause language more strictly, and more honestly.

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