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Tuesday, September 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: Inslee makes government by proclamation the new normal

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Sue Lani Madsen  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Sue Lani Madsen The Spokesman-Review

It’s no longer a state of emergency. It’s the new normal for Washington’s governor, issuing over 500 proclamations as of last Friday.

Dictating policy is so much easier than dealing with legislative debate or building consensus. Just make it so.

Washington government has been operating under a series of proclamations since Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency on Feb. 29. Some of those proclamations are or were reviewable by the “four corners,” meaning the Democrats and Republicans in House and Senate leadership. Thirty-seven proclamations were still in effect as of July 31. Another 482 have either expired or their renewal was rejected by one or more members of the legislative leadership group, which includes Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, Speaker of the House Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.

According to last week’s update of the “proclamation tracker” prepared by legislative staff for the Senate Republican Caucus, 28 current proclamations are reviewable by the Legislature. Most are of the red-tape-cutting type, like waiving the requirement for a newly hired nursing assistant to complete the certification process within four months of hiring.

Lessons learned from discarding nonessential rules is a topic for another column, but accommodations to certification timelines during the emergency phase of a situation is reasonable. At a time when the state is reporting about half of all deaths due to COVID-19 have taken place in long-term care facilities, nursing assistants are essential and getting bureaucracy out of the way of efforts to staff up had bipartisan support from legislative leadership. Most of the reviewable proclamations expire Sept. 1 unless renewed.

Of the nine proclamations not subject to leadership review under the current emergency powers granted to the governor, all but two say their expiration is the “end of the emergency,” according to the tracking list. While the Emergency Operations Center started shutting down emergency support functions in May, the governor controls the end date of the emergency.

Inslee has refused to call a special session to deal with the $9 billion budget hole, reportedly because there is no legislative consensus. Meanwhile, he’s making budget cuts all on his own.

When the governor’s office instituted rate cuts for nursing homes effective Aug. 1, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, wrote a letter to his colleagues in both parties urging the legislature to call itself into special session and stop relying on backroom dealmaking.

“If we were to collectively rank the areas it would be most disastrous to cut funding at this time, nursing homes would almost certainly be at the top of the list,” Braun wrote. “I respectfully submit that to sit idly by and allow this reduction to move forward is to be complicit in the resulting harm. Even if through our collective voices we are able to convince the Governor to step back from this ill-considered proposal, this is illustrative of the need to formally act as the Constitution envisions, not through back channels.”

Those back channels have been one-sided.

Sen. Schoesler, a wheat farmer in Adams County, called back Wednesday in the middle of harvest.

“I did not hear from the governor for 3 ½ months. I can certainly share my phone records with you,” Schoesler said. “This week, he did call and ask me what I thought about something, we had a brief and amiable visit.”

He remembers talking once last spring to the governor’s chief of staff, David Postman. He knows it was April, because he took the phone call from the tractor while he was disking. It was also memorable because he was told he’d hear back on the issue by the end of the day, then nothing.

Schoesler said the Republican caucus has sent over 20 letters to the governor’s office with suggestions on how to best handle policy issues and the budget, but “we only got a reply to two or three so we no longer bother to send letters.”

Schoesler did say the governor wasn’t being completely untruthful when he says he’s talking to the Legislature. From FOIA requests and a few cooperative staff, the Republican caucus is aware the governor is talking regularly to Billig and Jinkins.

“He has his tax group he meets with regularly, we know that,” said Schoesler.

With no metrics for an end to the emergency period, the Legislature is struggling with being sidelined during this new normal. So are we all.

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