A bill to significantly restrict the governor’s emergency powers — sparked by backlash to Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide restrictions during the pandemic — received a public hearing this week.
Supporters argued that the issue is a bipartisan one, though of the bill’s nine sponsors, all are Republicans.
Last year, while Republicans similarly denounced Inslee’s emergency actions and demanded a special legislative session, Democratic leadership was largely silent on the issue. Inslee has contended that swift action saved thousands of lives, and during press conferences has pointed to the Washingtons low death rate relative to other states.
The bill appears unlikely to make it far through the Washington state Legislature, where both chambers are controlled by Democrats.
A lack of progressive opposition presented at the hearing also indicates that opponents likely don’t view the bill as a major threat.
Before the hearing, prime sponsor Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, whose district covers a portion of Lewis County, painted a picture of what he sees as a constitutional crisis.
“You know, it’s a bad thing when one branch of the government, of any government system, has too much authority and too much control over public policy,” he said. “You end up with public policy that doesn’t work for much of the public. And I’m afraid that’s where we are now.”
Walsh’s bill would require emergency proclamations to be issued on a county-by-county basis using “least restrictive means” and would limit a state of emergency and 14 days unless extended by the Legislature. Similar restrictions would be put on the secretary of health and local health officers.
Anna Duff, a resident in the 48th Legislative District, said the bill should appeal to Democrats, too, since it would limit the power of a hypothetical conservative governor.
“You may agree with every single decision our governor has made during this emergency. But will you always?” she said. “Now imagine your worst political enemy in charge. What could that person do with these powers? How could you say for sure that he or she would not abuse them?”
Jason Mercier, of Washington Policy Center, a free-market think tank, described Inslee as making decisions behind closed doors.
“It makes entirely appropriate sense for the executive branch to have time-limited emergency powers to respond to an emergent need,” Mercier said. “But at some point the people’s legislative branch of the government needs to be brought back into the decision making.”
Tietje Miller told lawmakers that while state mandates are backed by science, “science is just a theory waiting to be disproven.”
Nick Murray, a policy analyst with the Maine Policy Institute, referenced the think tank’s recent report, which ranked all 50 states based on their executives’ emergency powers. In it, Washington ranked among the lowest five states, which “bestow their governors the sole authority to determine when and where an emergency exists, and when an emergency ceases to exist.”
Murray suggested that reform should hinge on requiring the governor to get legislative approval to extend emergency proclamations — a provision included in Walsh’s bill.
“By outlining a consistent process, the legislature can remove politics from the equation. It can guarantee the people an equal seat at the table, and no matter who the governor may be or the political makeup of the legislature, the process should remain the same,” Murray said.
“I think this is the bare minimum of accountability in this day in age.”
The deadline to pass bills out of committee is Monday, Feb. 15.