(The Center Square) — People appear to favor legislative oversight of gubernatorial powers in Washington state.
Friday morning’s virtual public hearing before the Senate State Government and Elections Committee on Senate Bill 5909 saw 5,457 people made their positions known, most in favor of the legislation. The public hearing didn’t include a vote on the bill.
If enacted, the measure would set up a process so that legislative leaders can vote to end an emergency proclamation if it has been in place for more than 90 days when the legislature is out of session.
“I’m here today in response to my constituents and to the great depth of communication that we have received from folks across Washington,” said Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, the prime sponsor of the bill.
The last few years, she said, have taught us many things, including the fact “there is a gap in the checks and balances of our system of government. That there is a place where we don’t have an equal playing field of power, and this bill aims to address that.”
On Feb. 29, 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide emergency in response to the spread of COVID-19 under the Emergency Powers Act of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 43.06.220. Since then, he has issued scores of additional proclamations ranging from stay-at-home orders to school closures to a moratorium on evictions to a vaccine mandate.
Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform with the Washington Policy Center, said it’s time for the end of one-man rule in the Evergreen State.
“In an emergency the governor needs to be able to quickly respond,” he said. “With this awesome power should come meaningful legislative oversight. And unfortunately, our statute has a varied weakness in that regard. When it waives a law, it automatically expires after 30 days unless the legislature approves it.
“But that does not exist to those prohibitive restrictions, and there’s really no logical reason to treat waiving of statutes and a prohibitive restriction from the governor differently. Both should require legislative approval and expire after a certain amount of time.”
Mercier recommended the legislation be crafted to include an exception for an emergency order narrowly written solely to qualify for federal funds.
Several citizens expressed their displeasure with what they saw as an abuse of power by Inslee in combatting the pandemic.
“With over 700 days of unchecked emergency orders by our governor and little regard for our humanity, he has crippled, demoralized, divided and discriminated our livelihoods,” Jennifer Killman told the committee.
Richard Gunewald said action needed to be taken one way or the other to curb the governor’s emergency powers.
“Government overreach is being watched carefully and will be addressed either by prudent actions during this session by our legislators or by elections coming up later this year,” he said.
Not everyone was in favor of SB 5909.
Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, who commands both the Washington Army National Guard and the Washington Air National Guard, indicated his opposition to the legislation on grounds previously brought up by Mercier.
“Ending a proclamation early will put our federal money at risk,” the general said. “And recent disasters have show that there’s a lot of money on the line.”
Daugherty said the exemption for federal funding that Mercier proposed would not work as a practical matter.
“That’s really the hard wall that we’re up against here,” Daugherty said. “We can’t just shut off that proclamation because recovery goes on for years, and so that’s my concern here.”
During Thursday afternoon’s press conference from the State Capitol, Inslee indicated he is not worried about the possibility of emergency powers oversight from the Democratically-controlled legislature.
“I’m just not very excited about this because the legislature has embraced what we’re doing,” the governor said. “We’ve been working in partnership with the legislature for two years.”
A hearing scheduled for Jan. 31 in the House is set to consider House Bill 1772, which subjects the governor’s emergency orders to legislative oversight after 60 days.