Over the past 30 months, it has become increasingly clear that Washington lawmakers must adjust the state’s laws for emergency declarations.
On Feb. 29, 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee issued emergency measures to combat the then-nascent COVID-19 outbreak. “This means our state can respond quickly and effectively,” Inslee said. “Our priority now is to slow the spread of this virus. … Preventing future cases will require the work of all of us.”
The response was necessary, and it has been effective. Washington has ranked among the most successful states in preventing COVID infections and deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, and Inslee deserves credit for his quick actions.
But as the public and businesses and government agencies have adjusted to the threat and adopted appropriate safety measures, the need for an emergency declaration has passed. Yet it remains in place, with no timeline for abolition.
According to The Seattle Times, only 13 states still have emergency measures in place. Most of those have set expiration dates, but Washington’s may be extended at the whim of the governor.
A spokesperson for Inslee notes that only 10 of the governor’s original 85 pandemic-related executive orders remain in effect. “It’s not so much a standard metric as it is a judgment based on the opinions of the governor’s advisers, agencies and other partners in pandemic response, and the governor does his best to settle on the safest way to proceed out of the pandemic,” the spokesperson wrote to the Times.
The issue, however, goes beyond a single governor or a single emergency. Such orders should be reserved for the early days of a surprise event and should not be allowed to linger indefinitely. Nearly all Washingtonians can agree, we believe, that COVID-19 remains a threat but the emergency has long since passed.
As The Columbian has written editorially: “Imagine, for a moment, if a governor decided that gun violence in the state is an emergency and declared an indefinite halt to all gun sales. Or if another governor decided that abortion was an emergency and closed reproductive health clinics. Either scenario is extreme and would invite numerous court challenges, but the absurd examples demonstrate the need to strengthen the checks and balances in state government. No governor of either party should have unfettered power.”
Lawmakers tepidly broached the issue during this year’s session. But a Democratic-led Legislature is reluctant to temper the power of a Democratic governor, and efforts to better balance state government were largely ignored.
As a reminder: Despite the claims of critics, Inslee’s actions are not illegal. Several court rulings have upheld the governor’s emergency powers, saying Inslee has complied with state laws. The point is that those laws should be altered to require legislative input once the initial shock of an emergency has passed.
According to the Maine Policy Institute, our state ranks among the bottom four in terms of governmental balance of power. Washington and a handful of other states “bestow on their governors the sole authority to determine when and where an emergency exists, and when an emergency ceases to exist.”
Legislators should assert their status as a co-equal branch of government. After 60 or 90 or 120 days, the extension of emergency orders should require approval of those who are most directly elected by the public.
No emergency is indefinite, a fact that should be reflected in state law.