More than a year ago public officials across the country locked down their states and their state economies in response to the arrival of COVID-19. Severe restrictions forced millions of Washingtonians and fellow Americans to stay home. Many lost work and still haven’t recovered.
In March 2020, it seemed like the prudent thing to do given this unknown illness. But few could have guessed a lockdown would still be in place more than 14 months later.
In most other states – it isn’t. In Washington state, one-person rule has kept the state in lockdown, jumping from one market-tested slogan to another, without a true plan in place. Remember “Stay Home, Stay Healthy”? How about “Washington’s Recovery Plan,” or “Safe Start Washington,” or “Healthy Washington – Road to Recovery”? None have returned us to an open economy and society.
There was the chaotic vaccine rollout. Washingtonians were told to wait while groups like “the second tier of phase 1B” were vaccinated. The state made the system so complicated no one knew what that meant.
On April 8, Gov. Jay Inslee claimed he had no discretion on COVID shutdowns – that metrics and data would decide. A day later, he decided to change the metrics.
In late April, the governor warned the state was on the verge of a fourth wave. A few weeks later, he went maskless to announce a full reopening and the “end of the mask mandate.” Except he said farmworkers, most of whom work outdoors, still have to wear face masks.
COVID-19 is serious, but Washington’s public response has been particularly inept. The problem is one-person rule, with no oversight, no accountability, no pressure to get it right. No wonder there have been so many mistakes.
The majority of legislators refused time and time again to exercise their checks and balances responsibility, instead allowing the governor’s office to use emergency powers to keep complete control for months on end.
Some might say that’s because Democrats control both houses of the legislature, but Democrats in states like Hawaii, New York and New Mexico have provided oversight of their own governors.
“There needs to be checks. I think that is what my constituents were concerned about, that the governor has unilateral power to do things indefinitely and there is a lack of community input,” said Hawaii state Rep. Scott Nishimoto, a Democrat.
In just the past week, the governor and the Department of Labor and Industries, have issued new rules that, for all intents and purposes, adopt a policy of vaccine passports in our state.
The new Labor and Industries rules require employers to “demonstrate they have verified vaccination status for workers who are not masked or physically distanced.”
What is one of the ways they recommend doing that? “Marking a worker’s badge or credential to show that they are vaccinated.”
With these policies, the state is placing a business in a position of violating HIPAA or losing its business license.
Governors need short-term powers for real emergencies but allowing the governor to set rule for more than a year without the involvement of the people’s representatives is not the way our government is supposed to work.
Other states give the legislature more oversight over emergency actions taken by the executive branch. In Wisconsin, “A state of emergency shall not exceed 60 days, unless the state of emergency is extended by joint resolution of the legislature.”
In Minnesota, the governor must call a special session if a “peacetime” emergency lasts longer than 30 days so lawmakers can respond.
According to a new national study by the Maine Policy Institute, Washington’s ranks among the worst states in oversight of executive emergency actions.
“Washington [and a few other states] are among the worst-ranking states because they bestow on their governors the sole authority to determine when and where an emergency exists, and when an emergency ceases to exist,” the study concluded.
One person should not have indefinite power to make decisions that have caused deep emotional pain, soaring unemployment, cut family incomes and closed thousands of businesses, many permanently.
This is precisely why the people’s legislative branch of government exists – to deliberate and provide guidance to the executive branch on what policies should be in place and how to implement them.
If the Legislature returns for a special session this fall, limiting the governor’s emergency powers and restoring balance and oversight should be a top issue.
Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director for Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Olympia and Seattle.