State Lawmaker Wants Limits on Washington Governor's Powers, and Health Districts Too


KENNEWICK — A Tri-Cities legislator is leading the charge in an attempt to curtail the emergency powers of the governor and local health districts.

Rep. Brad Klippert has two bills prefiled already, and another two expected soon, that, among other things, require the governor to get the Legislature to sign off on an emergency after 30 days.

He also says the Legislature should decide if health districts can continue emergency orders such as mask mandates or school closures.

The Washington state Legislature convenes Jan. 11.

Currently, the governor's power to issue an emergency proclamation is largely unchecked, argues Jason Mercier, the Washington Policy Center's Kennewick-based director of the conservative think tank, Center for Government Reform.

When the governor waives laws, such as the Open Public Meetings Act, he is required to get approval from the Legislature after 30 days.

If the Legislature isn't in session, he needs the approval of the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, which happened in the case of the coronavirus pandemic.

Klippert's bills put the same requirement in place for other orders related to emergency declarations, such as a statewide mandatory mask requirement.

That would include the order that stopped indoor dining in restaurants, closed fitness centers and limited the number of people inside retail businesses.

The law would force the same legislative oversight of local health officers and state agencies responding to emergencies.

The Kennewick Republican said he wants to give people control of their government after months of having one person, Gov. Jay Inslee, make decisions.

"A ton of my constituents are tired of it," Klippert said. "They want to live their individual lives in freedom."

He said administrators will still have the power to respond to emergencies

Mercier said it's part of a larger call among lawmakers who want to have a say now that the governor's emergency proclamations are stretching into their eighth month.

"One person should not have indefinite power to make decisions affecting every aspect of our lives," Mercier said in a blog post. "This is precisely why the people's legislative branch of government exists: to deliberate and provide guidance to the executive branch on what policies should be in place and how to implement them."

The move is similar to a law in Wisconsin which requires the governor to call the legislature into session after 60 days to extend the emergency powers.

House Republican Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox from the Olympia area promised similar bills in a Dec. 5 virtual news conference.

"If a state of emergency is going to be continued past a certain date or longevity, then the Legislature should be called in," Wilcox said. "And we know know that we can do a virtual session of the Legislature. And the Legislature should be involved in decisions regarding whether or not we are going to have a state of emergency that doesn't really have a clear end."

The governor's legal counsel and policy staff haven't reviewed the bills yet, according to Mike Faulk, Inslee's deputy communications director.

"The governor's appropriate use of the office's emergency powers has saved lives during this pandemic. As the emergency continues, the governor remains committed to acting on that authority based on the science of the virus and its impacts on public health and the economy," Faulk said.

Health emergencies

The primary focus of Klippert's first bill, House Bill 1004, is the governor's emergency proclamation powers. It does not eliminate the power of the governor to issue emergency orders.

After a month, however, it requires a majority of the Legislature or the House and Senate majority and minority leaders to sign off on it. This only stays in effect until the Legislature comes back into session and can vote.

The bill also extends the requirement for orders issued by local health officers like Dr. Amy Person in the Benton Franklin Health District. The bill requires those local agencies to go to the Legislature for orders related to emergency declarations.

Benton Franklin Health District issued an order more than three months into the pandemic for businesses to require customers to wear masks.

Klippert said he specifically was aiming at the health district's recommendations on school reopenings.

While schools were initially shut down by a governor's order, those restrictions have largely been lifted. The state and Benton Franklin Health District have not issued orders to keep schools closed.

Instead, those decisions have been in the hands of school boards. In the cases of Kennewick and Richland, the boards have rejected the recommendations of the health district at points..

It's unclear how this would impact other health orders, such as ones connected to algae blooms or boil orders for contaminated water.

Many county health agencies across the state either work directly under the county, or are directed by a board made up of county or city officials.

In Benton and Franklin counties, that board is made up from the six Benton and Franklin county commissioners.

In others, like Spokane, Chelan and Douglas counties, there are a mix of city council members and county commissioners on the board.

In House Bill 1013, Klippert focused on state agencies making changes to their rules based on a governor's emergency proclamations.

The Legislature would need to sign off on those changes if it's in session. Otherwise three of the four leaders in the House and Senate could agree to it.


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