Other Views: Don't Be Fooled — Bill by Senate Dems Does Little to Contain Inslee's Emergency Powers


Don't get too excited about Tuesday's Senate vote to put a check on the governor's emergency powers.

SB 5909 does very little to change the status quo in Washington state.

That's why the bill was approved 29-20. Republicans saw it for the weak bill that it is and opposed it.

"This bill does not fix the problem," according to Republican Senate Leader John Braun of Centralia. "It allows the majority to do exactly what has been done for two years, which is nothing."

Now that the bill has been sent to the House, a virtual public hearing is scheduled on Monday, Feb. 21, at 1:30 p.m. with the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee.

For those who want to impress upon state lawmakers the need to rein in the governor's emergency power, this hearing is your chance.

Braun reached out to the Tri-City Herald and The News Tribune of Tacoma to explain why Republicans didn't support the bill. His caucus wants a bill with bite in it and this particular bill is toothless.

But, by approving it, the Democrats can tell constituents they voted to rein in the governor's emergency power — even though their support is mostly for show.

Judging by the initial public response, people are upset that the governor's power over the state's COVID response has gone unchecked for nearly two years.

At the bill's Senate committee hearing, 140-plus people signed up to speak and nearly 5,400 people submitted a position on the bill, which reportedly set a new Senate record. The previous high was 4,858 on an assault weapons ban.

On the House side, over 5,300 people submitted a position on a much stronger emergency power reform bill — HB 1772. This one didn't survive, and Republican amendments to SB 5909 also didn't stick.

So what Senate Democrats have offered is a "step sideways" and not a step forward to fixing the state's imbalance of power, said Braun.

SB 5909 authorizes the majority and minority leaders of each chamber the authority to terminate an emergency after 90 days if the Legislature is not in session.

It also allows them to terminate specific orders issued by the governor that prohibits activities.

While the change makes it easier than calling a special session to put a check on the governor's emergency actions, it isn't going to alter much in the near future.

All four leaders would need to agree for a state of emergency or for certain emergency orders to be rescinded — and that isn't likely to happen.

Even Gov. Jay Inslee recognizes that. After SB 5909 made it off the Senate floor, the statement from his office said, "We're pleased this legislation does not hinder our state's current response to COVID."

While the pandemic has pushed concerns about the imbalance of power forward, this issue goes beyond how the governor has handled the pandemic.

We agree Inslee's approach has saved lives. Even if the Legislature could have been more involved in the decision — making process, we imagine that with a Democrat majority in both the House and the Senate the governor's actions would have been supported.

But one person should not have so much power for so long. This present situation undermines the checks-and-balance system we rely on to ensure that one branch of government does not become more powerful than the others.

For nearly two years the Legislature has been sidelined while Inslee managed the state's COVID response by himself.

It's a lopsided system that needs real reform — not window dressing.

Braun and other Republicans would prefer a bill that would set a time limit on how long the governor's emergency powers last. That's how the majority of other states in the country handle it.

Inslee announced Thursday that the indoor mask mandate can be lifted on March 21. He also said he is not going to end the state of emergency because that's how the state can keep receiving federal funds.

So who knows what might happen in the future?

SB 5909 is a start but it isn't good enough.

But there is still time to make it stronger — if only the Legislature would stand up for itself.