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GOP leaders want changes to state emergency powers laws to limit governor’s spending

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 4, 2020

The Washington state Capitol building in Olympia, photographed Jan. 5, 2017, features the classic dome architecture and houses the governor's office and the Legislature's two chambers.   (JESSE TINSLEY)
The Washington state Capitol building in Olympia, photographed Jan. 5, 2017, features the classic dome architecture and houses the governor's office and the Legislature's two chambers.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

OLYMPIA – After pushing unsuccessfully for a special session for some nine months, Republican legislative leaders said Friday they will seek changes to the state’s emergency powers laws that would limit a governor’s ability to renew proclamations and spend money.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said current law has allowed Gov. Jay Inslee to renew proclamations repeatedly at 30-day intervals with limited input from the Legislature.

“We do have some basic ability to say ‘No,’ but not much chance for discussion,” said Braun, who was elected earlier this week to the Senate Republican’s top spot. “After 30 days, we need to have a special session to work things out.”

The $3 billion in federal money designed to help mitigate the economic impacts of COVID-19 also created an unprecedented situation, Braun said. Decisions on how to spend money are a basic legislative function, although the law gives a governor the power to decide how to spend “unexpected receipts” when the Legislature is not in session.

But unexpected receipts are usually relatively small amounts , not billions of dollars, Braun said. Inslee is operating within his authority, but the law needs to be adjusted, he added.

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said he wasn’t denying the state is facing an emergency with COVID-19. But the governor needs “more buy-in” from state residents by having their representatives’ voices heard in a special session.

“His party has control of both chambers. It would not be a coup,” Wilcox said.

Inslee has consistently resisted calls for a special session, arguing first that he used his authority to reduce state spending with line-item vetoes before signing the budget the Legislature approved in March, then arguing lawmakers should wait to see what additional aid Congress would approve in the summer.

Congress did not pass additional COVID-19 relief in the summer – a reduced package is pending in the Senate – and the state’s budget outlook improved with the economy in the early fall. At that point, Inslee insisted he made the right decision not to call a special session that could have cut the budget more than necessary. Any decisions that needed legislators’ approval, such as tapping reserves in the Rainy Day Fund, could wait for budget discussions in the regular session that begins in January, he said.

Most recently, he said he wouldn’t rule out a special session if lawmakers developed a plan to help unemployed workers whose benefits may soon expire or help struggling businesses in ways he couldn’t accomplish through executive actions.

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