Texas Gov. Greg Abbott stunned national public health experts when he declared the Lone Star State would be mask-optional, starting Wednesday, and that businesses could reopen at 100-percent capacity. He frustrated several Texas mayors who oppose lifting the mask mandate. And he made life miserable for business owners faced with a masker-vs.-anti-masker backlash.
The contrast between Abbott and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, one of America's most cautious, science-driven governors, couldn't be more obvious. Inslee has held firm on mask requirements while gradually easing other restrictions; the Democratic governor knows that as COVID-19 variants emerge, this is no time to tempt fate — not with vaccinations ramping up and the pandemic finish line in sight.
Even so, the Republican Texas governor's unilateral move is a cautionary tale for Washington.
It gives a scenario of how things could go wrong in our state, where the governor enjoys some of the most unfettered emergency powers in the US. (Washington is among the four lowest-ranked states for balance of power, according to one study.)
What if a Washington governor someday made a rash declaration that placed residents' health or safety at risk? Our Legislature would be hard-pressed to undo it.
The flip side is a governor who doesn't reopen schools, restaurants and other businesses as quickly as many believe he should, criticism that has dogged Inslee for months. Different circumstances, same outcome — legislators have their hands tied.
A handful of proposals in Olympia this year sought to put limits on the executive branch's emergency declarations ranging from 14 days to 30 days, perhaps longer with amendments. Any extensions would have to come by legislative consent. (And with a Democrat-controlled Legislature, consent would be very likely.)
It's an idea worthy of debate, negotiation and a vote, especially as the current state of emergency drags past a year. Inslee missed a golden opportunity to invite collaboration when he refused to call the Legislature into special session in 2020.
Alas, none of the proposals was taken seriously. One bill was given a token 40-minute public hearing, in which champions of a coequal Legislature had two minutes to speak. Supporters of the status quo didn't even bother to show up and argue their case; they knew they didn't have to.
Tuesday was another cutoff day for bills to advance in Olympia. That means any change is all but dead this year, though in truth it was never really alive.
Jason Mercier, government reform director for the Washington Policy Center, told us Tuesday he's not giving up on seeing some semblance of emergency checks and balances adopted this year. "This is especially critical with no firm plan for future reopening phases from the Governor and his past practice of changing the metrics without public input or legislative oversight."
The problem is that there's little appetite among Democrats to challenge Inslee. That's a shame. Power-sharing between the three branches of government shouldn't be a partisan issue.
In the long run, this isn't about whether you agree or disagree with a particular governor. It's about preserving a balanced, constitutionally sound government, where the public's voice is carried by the 147 representatives and senators they elect.
Bravo to legislative leaders in New York for figuring this out, though it took a misconduct scandal embroiling Gov. Andrew Cuomo to get there. Both chambers of the Democrat-majority New York Legislature voted in the last week to curb Cuomo's emergency powers.
"The public deserves to have checks and balances," New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement after Friday's vote, adding that the bill "would create a system with increased input while at the same time ensuring New Yorkers continue to be protected (from COVID-19)."
The lesson from Texas, New York and Washington is this: Whether your governor is a D or an R, whether conscientious or impetuous, squeaky clean or scandal-plagued, there ought to be reasonable constraints on his or her authority.
It may be too late for this emergency, but Washington should correct the imbalance before the next one strikes.