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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Local accountability matters in public health and public schools

Perceived crisis has been grabbed as opportunity by the party unabashedly favoring bigger government. HB1152 proposes to comprehensively rewrite Washington’s public health statute, inserting a new layer of bureaucracy into public health. In addition to the size of government question, it’s a premature move, given we have yet to write the last chapter on the current seemingly endless state of emergency.

Creation of Comprehensive Public Health Districts is a move by those who prefer management by state level technocrats to the collective wisdom of elected leaders accountable to the public, relying on the local knowledge of the public health officers they hire. The proposed CPHDs would be new permanent executive branch entities, accountable only to the governor.

They are foreshadowed by the regions “temporarily” created by Gov. Inslee’s latest recovery plan implemented January 11, modified January 29 and still lacking an end game. Modifying metrics is not automatically a bad thing. Implementing any plan should always include a willingness to adapt to new information. But that’s precisely why rewriting public health statutes before the after-action reports are even drafted is a bad idea. We’ve only just moved to Phase 2 and don’t even have a Phase 3 yet. And if the problem is lack of funding and staffing at the current county public health districts, as HB 1152 contends, it would seem obvious the first answer is to provide resources where they are lacking instead of creating a new set of agencies siphoning money out of the general budget.

Bills start with lengthy statements of purpose providing guidance on legislative intent if challenged in court. While this may certainly be “the most difficult challenge in Washington’s public health history since the 1918 flu pandemic,” it is irrelevant to make comparisons to combat deaths. HB 1152 includes this statistical non-sequitur:

“More Americans have died from COVID-19 than the number of United States troops killed in combat during World War II.”

It’s an egregious misuse of statistics to create shock and awe. Put into context, WWII combat deaths at 0.21% of the 1945 U.S. population exceed U.S. deaths due to COVID, a number which is approximately 0.15% of the 2020 U.S. population as of this week. And COVID deaths are on a declining trajectory as the epidemic follows the normal wave pattern of peaks and troughs for endemic viruses.

Public health district accountability is one reason this bill is being pushed, according to Rep. Joe Schmick (R-Colfax). He referred to sponsors who “want to see accountability, but I think they’re pretty accountable as they are,” said Schmick. “They can only spend money on foundational public health as defined by statute.” He objects to creation of a powerful governor-appointed work group overseeing the new CPHDs, appointing their leadership, determining per capita estimates to deliver services and deciding revenue allocations. It inserts a state-level executive branch into areas where decisions are best made at the local level by local public health boards and local elected officials directly accountable to the people. It usurps the elected Legislature’s role in setting state budget priorities.

It’s also part of a pattern of executive power grabs this session in Olympia, aided and abetted by a compliant Legislature. While Idaho’s Republican-dominated Legislature has pushed back against Republican Gov. Brad Little and passed legislation clarifying an appropriate legislative role during an emergency, Washington’s Democrat-dominated Legislature has been less than lukewarm about even taking up any of several bills to do the same for Washingtonians chafing under nearly a year of one-man rule.

Whether you agree with Gov. Inslee’s actions or not, the principle of a legislative check to avoid misuse of emergency powers by future governors should concern you. A Maine Policy Institute study of state statutes for balance of power between legislative and executive branches ranked Washington in the bottom five. Accountability is important for far more than who controls public health departments.

When Sen. Andy Billig was asked at a January 18 media availability about the state intervening in school reopening decisions, he said, “There’s sort of general guidance of what’s safe and then really leaving it up to our system of local control in education to let there be local decisions based on what’s happening on the ground in terms of COVID and based on what that local community wants.” The same logic applies to public health districts as it does to school districts.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com

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