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Friday, October 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

‘It’s about The Big One’: Amendment would give state Legislature broad powers in case of catastrophe

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 4, 2019, 7:56 a.m.

This Aug. 1, 2019, photo shows evidence of a Cascadia earthquake's awesome destructive power at the beach in Neskowin, Ore. A “ghost forest” of Sitka spruces juts up from the town beach. The trees were likely buried by tsunami debris 2,000 years earlier, and partially uncovered by storms in 1997. A Washington constitutional amendment would allow for “continuity of governmental operations in periods of emergency resulting from ... catastrophic incidents” like another Cascadia quake. (Andrew Selsky / AP)
This Aug. 1, 2019, photo shows evidence of a Cascadia earthquake's awesome destructive power at the beach in Neskowin, Ore. A “ghost forest” of Sitka spruces juts up from the town beach. The trees were likely buried by tsunami debris 2,000 years earlier, and partially uncovered by storms in 1997. A Washington constitutional amendment would allow for “continuity of governmental operations in periods of emergency resulting from ... catastrophic incidents” like another Cascadia quake. (Andrew Selsky / AP)

Washington voters worried about “The Big One” – a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered by a geologic fault off the Pacific Coast – might have a special reason to mark their ballot in the November election.

A constitutional amendment was proposed with just such a catastrophe in mind. But opponents say the powers the amendment would give the Legislature are too broad, and the definition of a catastrophic incident that could allow such changes is too vague.

Senate Joint Resolution 8200 sailed through the Legislature as a 21st-century update to a constitutional amendment enacted during the Cold War.

As currently written, that section of the constitution provides for “continuity of governmental operations in periods of emergency resulting from enemy attack.” If a simple majority of voters approve Resolution 8200 on Nov. 5, the section will be broadened so that continuity is ensured not only in case of attack but also in case of “catastrophic incidents.”

Under the existing law, which voters approved in 1962, the Legislature would have the power to move the state capital or a county seat, make changes to the requirements to elect or appoint legislators, pass bills and fill vacancies in state or county offices in the aftermath of an attack. The Legislature could also fill an open governor’s seat if all people in the line of succession set out in the state constitution are unavailable.

In the 2019 session, legislators were more worried about shaking earth and crushing waves than falling bombs, prompting them to add the “catastrophic incidents” clause.

“The catastrophic incident we anticipate will be the big earthquake that will do such damage that we will need to have procedures in place to have government continue operating,” Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said in introducing the bill to the House last April.

“It’s about The Big One, the earthquake,” Rep. Bill Jenkin, R-Prosser, said. “We know this will be the next disaster.”

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, a major geologic fault line off the Pacific Coast that stretches from Vancouver Island to northern California, has the potential for creating a massive earthquake that could decimate Western Washington and generate a tsunami that would inundate coastal communities.

The quakes occur on an average of 300 to 500 years, with the last one recorded in 1700. The Washington National Guard and the state Emergency Management Division have already mapped out and practiced for responding to a massive quake.

But the amendment doesn’t limit the expanded powers of the Legislature to a quake-induced disaster, nor does it define “catastrophic incident” or how extensive it would have to be, opponents say.

“You would have to trust government to make these decisions with or without your input,” warns the argument against the amendment, co-authored by Rep. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley. “We should demand a better proposal with clear definitions.”

State statutes do define “catastrophic incident.” It can cover any natural or human-caused event– including terrorism and an enemy attack – with mass casualties, high levels of damage or disruption.

At the same time the Legislature passed the proposed amendment, it also approved a bill that clarifies a governor’s power to suspend certain laws and regulations in a declared emergency for as long 30 days – or more if the Legislature is in session and agrees. If the Legislature is out of session, its leaders can extend that time limit until lawmakers return to session.

Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, argued that was still too broad, and with the potential for problems.

“It could be used by an unscrupulous governor – not saying that we have one,” Hasegawa said. “We have to be careful.”

But Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview scoffed: “It’s really a stretch to take that out so far as the governor going rogue on us.”

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