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Bill to reform governor’s emergency powers gets hearing in Senate

A person walks near the Legislative Building, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia.  (Ted S. Warren)
A person walks near the Legislative Building, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – After countless calls for action from Republican lawmakers and over 700 days in a state of emergency, a Senate panel on Friday heard a Democratic-sponsored bill that would reform the governor’s emergency powers. But it may not be the bill everyone wants.

Under current Washington state law, the governor can declare a state of emergency for an area of the state when there is an event that impacts life, property or public order. In making a declaration, the governor is enabled to issue orders prohibiting specific activities like public gatherings or the sale of alcohol. The governor can also waive certain statutory limitations or obligations, with some limitations, as long as there is a legislative review every 30 days. The governor is the only person who can end a state of emergency and prohibitive orders.

Washington has been in a state of emergency since Feb. 29, 2020. Republicans have continuously called for the Legislature to be more involved in the process. They say the current law did not account for ongoing emergencies, such as a pandemic, and now, Gov. Jay Inslee has had too much power for too long. They have introduced bills the past two sessions to make changes to the governor’s emergency powers, but the efforts have faced strong headwinds in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

This session, Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, introduced her own proposal and got seven other Democratic colleagues to sponsor it. She said people from all over the state have prompted her to take action on making reforms.

“Our neighbors recognize that there is a gap in the checks and balances of our system of government,” Randall said Friday at a Senate State Government and Elections hearing. “There is a place where we don’t have an equal balance of power and this bill aims to address that.”

The bill would allow the Speaker of the House, House minority leader and the Senate majority and minority leaders to end the 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.

Under current law, when the Legislature is in session, it could pass a bill ending the emergency, but the governor would still have to sign it.

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

Randall said her bill isn’t about the current emergency, but about how the government works during any future emergencies.

“We need to do some work to ensure that our balance of power is the right one as we enter any future emergencies.” she said.

Republicans in the Legislature say Randall’s bill does not go far enough in involving the Legislature in the state of emergency process. Senate minority leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said he’s “not super impressed” with Randall’s proposal.

“The actual bill itself does very little to change our current circumstance,” Braun said at a news conference on Tuesday. “It does very little to re-engage the Legislature in weighing in on the proclamations that the governor has issued over the course of the pandemic.”

A bill proposed by Republicans in the House would end a state of emergency automatically after 60 days. The bill would also allow the Legislature to end the state of emergency at any time through a concurrent resolution and allow the leadership of the Legislature to declare an end to the state of emergency if the Legislature is not in session. An emergency can be extended through a concurrent resolution or letter from the leadership of the Legislature if they are not in session. That bill will be heard in the House State Government and Tribal Relations committee on Monday.

People testifying at the bill’s hearing Friday also said it does not go far enough. Yakima County Commissioner Amanda McKinney said the Legislature needs to have a role in checking the governor’s powers.

“For two years common citizens have watched in disbelief at the voluntary silence of our state Legislature,” she said at the hearing. “If the consensus of this body is that a state of emergency exists, so be it. But that debate must occur even more often in times of turmoil, not less.”

The state’s adjutant general and director of the Washington Military Department voiced concern that the state’s emergency management division could be adversely impacted by the bill. Major General Bret Daugherty said ending emergency proclamations prematurely could put the state receiving federal resources at risk.

“It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are – if the Legislature were to terminate the proclamation, the federal funding stops,” Daugherty said. “We can’t just shut off that proclamation, because recovery goes on for years.”

Inslee is not receptive to any proposal changing his powers. He said Randall’s proposal is not needed because the Legislature has always been involved in making decisions relating to the current state of emergency.

“I’m not sure it’s really necessary because the Legislature already has opportunities to make decisions during the last two years,” Inslee said at a news conference on Thursday. “I’m just not very excited about this because the Legislature has embraced what we’re doing. We’ve been working in partnership with the Legislature for two years and so they have been with us.”

Randall’s bill is currently awaiting a vote in the committee, which has not yet been scheduled. If it passes the committee, it could be heard by the full Senate.

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