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Senate passes Democratic proposal to reform governor’s emergency powers with most Republicans opposed

A jogger runs past the Legislative Building just before dusk at the Capitol in Olympia.   (Associated Press)
A jogger runs past the Legislative Building just before dusk at the Capitol in Olympia.  (Associated Press)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – After an hour of contentious debate, a bill reforming the governor’s emergency powers was passed out of the state Senate on Tuesday afternoon on a largely party-line vote.

Emergency powers reform has been a hot topic for Republicans ever since Gov. Jay Inslee declared an emergency on Feb. 29, 2020 – a state that has continued for two years.

Democrats, on the other hand, have largely stayed away from the debate. That is, until Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, introduced a bill this session that would bring some changes to the governor’s powers. Randall said the pandemic has shown that there are “small and practical areas” in the governor’s powers where the Legislature needs to have control.

“Our neighbors and most – if not all – of us in this chamber believe that there is room for improvement in our checks and balances in our government,” Randall said. “Especially in times of emergency.”

As outlined in law, the governor can declare a state of emergency and prohibit activities and waive statutory limitations or obligations. Under the current statute, the governor is the only person who can end a state of emergency and prohibitive orders.

The Legislature could pass a bill challenging the governor and ending an emergency or prohibitive order, but the governor would still have to take action on that bill.

Randall’s bill would allow the Speaker of the House, House minority leader and the Senate majority and minority leaders to come together and end a state of emergency if the Legislature is not in session and if the state of emergency has been going on for longer than 90 days. Legislative leadership can also end the governor’s prohibitive orders if the legislature is not in session.

The bill also makes permanent a legislative committee that budgets unanticipated funds from the federal government.

Republicans, whose previous reform efforts didn’t go far in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, said they couldn’t support a bill that does little to change the lack of power the Legislature has in checking the governor’s powers.

Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, said the bill is “something that looks like we’re doing something but doesn’t really do anything.”

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said she was ready to support meaningful reforms to the governor’s powers but doesn’t see substance in Randall’s bill.

“The only option before us is a half-hearted proposal that clearly keeps the balance of power tipped towards the executive branch and away from the duly elected legislators as a whole and does not ensure a thing when it comes to checks and balances,” Wilson said.

A House proposal pushed by Republicans this session would provide an automatic end to states of emergency after 60 days. It would also provide avenues for the Legislature to end a state of emergency sooner, or extend it. The bill got a hearing in a committee last month, but received no further consideration afterward – effectively killing it.

Senate Republicans attempted to amend Randall’s bill to bring it in line with their previous proposals, but those amendments failed on party-line votes.

“We’re stuck with a piece of legislation that will do virtually nothing in practical terms in order to improve Washington law on emergency powers,” Wilson said.

Mike Faulk, spokesperson for Inslee, wrote in an email that his office is pleased the legislation passed Tuesday doesn’t hinder the state’s current response to COVID-19. He criticized “partisan amendments” that he said would have hindered the response to COVID-19.

Faulk said the Legislature has concurred with the governor’s actions over the past two years.

“We still question the necessity of this bill,” Faulk said.

Faulk did not say whether Inslee would veto the bill but said the governor’s office will review the legislation to assure there are no issues in the language that would unnecessarily inhibit actions by future governors.

The bill was approved on a 29-20 vote. Two Democratic Senators, June Robinson and Tim Sheldon – who normally caucuses with the Republicans – joined most Republicans in voting against the bill. Republican Sens. Brad Hawkins and Simon Sefzik joined other Democrats in voting for the bill.

Hawkins said that while the proposal is not what he would’ve written, “sometimes something is better than nothing.”

The bill will be sent to the House for consideration in a committee.

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