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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: The never-ending state of emergency

Thursday marks 845 days in Washington’s ongoing state of emergency. Fortunately, Gov. Inslee regularly gives full and transparent briefings on progress and metrics.

Just kidding. He didn’t even bring it up at his last press availability on May 18. You’d think if there was an ongoing emergency, it would be worth mentioning. There are no future news briefings on the governor’s calendar, and no response from the governor’s office as to when he might deign to speak to the citizens.

Five weeks ago, Inslee’s prepared remarks focused on the state funds available to spend on public safety issues caused by people living in homeless encampments on WSDOT road right of ways. Tiny homes, buying existing motels and apartments, and more large shelters were all on the options list for rapid rehousing as long as they could be put into place quickly and people moved out. In the governor’s own words:

“As for those who won’t go, they’ll simply have to comply with the law, which is they’ll need to go, and we will have our teams on our state right of ways … the Washington State Patrol will provide whatever law enforcement is necessary to make sure people comply with the law and if we provide these housing options for them, there’s no reasons people should not avail themselves of it.”

Meanwhile, the encampments are growing. Those who actually live near or work with people living homeless could explain a few reasons why a fair number will not take advantage of an offer the governor thinks can’t be refused. When pressed several times to clarify if he supported fines and arrests for people who won’t avail themselves, Inslee’s answers were variations on “people just have to follow the law.”

No amount of wishful thinking or state grants with strings attached makes shelter resistance disappear. It’s an out-of-touch response from the top-down administrative style we’ve been watching for over two years.

Then there’s the economic emergency created for households by inflation. According to AAA, the average price of gas per gallon a year ago was $3.639 and now it’s $5.537 and rising. When asked if he’d consider a gas tax holiday, Inslee said “that 16 cents per gallon would just go to the oil companies in their profits” and “Republicans love oil companies.”

But he was wrong. Washington’s current state gas taxes are not 16 cents per gallon but 49.4 cents per gallon, one of the highest levels in the country. And gas prices compete in a different market than oil. Only about 40-45% of each barrel of crude oil is refined into gasoline. The rest goes to other fuels and a variety of other products essential to modern life.

The price of gas at the pump is highly competitive. According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, the net profit per gallon for retail sales is about 1-3%, and they know how price-sensitive their customers are. If the gas is cheap, you’re more likely to go inside and spend money where the big markup is, on beverages and snacks. These are classic small businesses, and Republicans love small business.

The latest revenue forecast for the state projects an additional $1.5 billion due to state growth and high inflation. Will Inslee respond by calling the Legislature back into session to provide tax relief to residents and small business, or does he love big government more?

If there hadn’t been a couple of questions related to masks and vaccines, you’d never have known the governor is still holding onto emergency powers. He was noncommittal about bringing back mask requirements and offered no metrics for when he’d relinquish control. He said there will be no relief for state agencies left short-staffed by the vaccination requirement for state employees. The vaccination mandate stands. The reason? Because “we lose valuable knowledge when they’re sick and we don’t want them coughing on people and infecting them.”

Um, yeah, because obviously it’s much better to lose their valuable knowledge permanently, instead of encouraging proper use of sick leave for all employees and making logical accommodations for employees granted exemptions.

Vaccination has benefits, but blocking all risk of infection isn’t one of them, as our vaxxed and boosted governor and lieutenant governor discovered after their recent COVID diagnoses. They were accommodated. Part of the complaint in the lawsuit by Washington State Patrol and other forced-out state employees was related to the denial of available workplace accommodation. The lawsuit is still active at the state level, although the hearing may not be until early 2023. The federal case was dismissed a few weeks ago, and the plaintiffs’ attorney is still considering whether to appeal or not to the 9th Circuit Court.

Since the Democrat-dominated Legislature has failed to act in the last two sessions to add checks and balances, the governor still has the sole authority to decide what’s an emergency, declare an emergency and decide when it’s over. If ever.

It’s not the way the government is supposed to work, but it has been, for 845 days and counting. And that should scare everyone.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com

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