A push from Southwest Washington’s lawmakers to establish more oversight on Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency powers has failed to pick up much traction in the current legislative session, and the effort appears on track to die when the session concludes on April 25.
Republican legislators have introduced and sponsored multiple bills and amendments that would strengthen the requirement that Inslee receive approval from the Legislature on his emergency proclamations. While the specifics of those efforts vary, they’re rooted in the same argument: that the powers granted to the state’s executive branch during a crisis aren’t supposed to stretch on for more than a year.
“Our government was never designed to run this way with one person making all the decisions for all the people in the state on an ongoing, unending basis – and it should never run this way again,” said Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver.
Kraft has been among the more outspoken lawmakers calling for a check on the state’s executive branch. Before the session began, she introduced House Bill 1381, an aggressive measure which would have required the Legislature to approve Inslee’s emergency proclamations within two weeks by a two-thirds majority.
That bill, referred to the State Government & Tribal Relations Committee, never got a hearing. Another, House Bill 1029, was a little less stringent – it would require a simple majority of the Legislature to extend an emergency order every 14 days, or, if the Legislature isn’t in session, a written extension from party leaders in the House and the Senate. The bill received a committee hearing but never advanced. Committee Chair Rep. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, didn’t return The Columbian’s request for comment this week.
A few other pieces of legislation also died on the vine. Senate Bill 5039 would have narrowed the definition of what qualifies as an emergency, with legislative approval required after 30 days; House Bill 1557 would have required the Legislature to rule on an emergency proclamation within 60 days. Neither progressed.
On April 1, Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, introduced an amendment to an operating budget bill that would have allocated $100,000 in government funds to implement SB 5039 – an attempt to help the bill gain some momentum. Wilson’s amendment failed, 22-27.
“What the bill doesn’t do is, it doesn’t require a special session, and it doesn’t take away any of the powers that the governor has to make the emergency declaration,” Wilson said in her floor testimony. “It’s time that we have the ability to weigh on all the aspects of everything that’s going on around the state.”
Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat from Kitsap County who spoke against Wilson’s amendment, said she nonetheless understood the frustration.
“I don’t think there’s one of us who hasn’t been frustrated at one point or another in the last year about decisions being made, over which we weren’t able to exercise our legislative authority. Having said that, I want to also say I’m thankful we have a leader that was taking control of this time, and using science to make decisions,” Rolfes said.
Proponents of the status quo counter that Washington was so successful in dampening COVID-19 cases and deaths in part because Inslee was able to act quickly and in accordance with recommendations from science, not politics. That action likely saved lives.
Since the start of the pandemic, Washington has ranked among the best at stemming the spread of COVID-19. Just four states have lower per capita case counts since March 2020, and just six states have seen fewer deaths per capita.
The state’s undeniable success also earned accolades in national headlines.
“Washington was the tip of the spear,” Trish Riley, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy, told Politico for a feature on states with the best pandemic responses. “They were the first and had to make decisions really fast.”
Seattle, specifically, has been pointed to by multiple health and policy experts as a case study: despite being the location of the first identified COVID-19 cases in the United States, the Seattle metro area now has the lowest death rate of the 20 largest metropolitan regions in the country. Had the rest kept pace, The New York Times reported last month, an estimated 300,000 coronavirus deaths could have been avoided.
Even before the national media lauded Washington’s success, Inslee was telling The Columbian’s editorial board as much ahead of the 2020 election. He went on to win his third term by a 13.4-point margin.
“People can carp from the cheap seats, but the proof is in the pudding,” Inslee said in October. “We have reduced our infection rate dramatically because we have made decisions based on science.”
The emergency powers bestowed on the executive branch in Washington are currently among the most concentrated in the country.
The Maine Policy Institute, a free-market think tank, released a ranking of which states have the most power concentrated in the executive branch during emergencies – Washington tied for fifth, along with Ohio, North Carolina, Connecticut and Hawaii.
Under current state law, emergency proclamations from the governor are capped at 30 days unless they receive approval from the Legislature or approval from top Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. But Washington’s governor has the sole authority to determine when and where an emergency exists, an arrangement shared by about a quarter of state governments nationwide.
The Maine Policy Institute’s policy analyst, Nick Murray, was among the people to testify in the HB 1029 hearing. He said he was in favor of the bill.
“Let me be clear, this project is not a review of how each individual governor has exercised their emergency powers,” Murray told the House committee on Feb. 8. “It is an examination of the balance between each legislature and their executive.”
Lawmakers looking to curb the governor’s emergency powers during the current session don’t have any conventional options left. Sunday night was the deadline for moving bills out of their chamber of origin – anything that’s failed to pass either the House or the Senate by now is stuck.
Jason Mercier, the director of the Center for Government Reform at the right-leaning Washington Policy Center, said Monday that the various bills could still move forward if legislators can garner enough political willpower.
But there’s been almost no interest among majority party leadership to tackle the issue in the first 14 weeks of the session, he acknowledged, and it’s unlikely that willpower will materialize in the next two weeks.
“If legislative leadership wants to move a bill, any bill can be moved. There’s maneuvers they can make,” Mercier said. “It’s not a matter of there not being enough time.”
Kraft, in an email, said Republicans have one play left – they could opt to unite against the capital budget bond, which needs 60 percent to pass and relies on some support from the minority party.
“This would not be the desired route, but it has proven to be effective before and worked during the 2017-2018 sessions when a similar situation took place regarding the Hirst Water Rights issue. It forced both parties to come to the table and work out an acceptable solution,” Kraft wrote. “A bipartisan approach is always preferred, but as needed, holding this bond vote is the best tool available to Republicans being in the legislative minority to ensure a mutually agreeable solution prevails.”