Emergency powers go unaddressed in the 2021 legislative session

The Legislature recently adjourned without addressing one of the most pressing issues before us this session. Many of us had hoped to address the governor's emergency powers in the 105-day session, but the majority party was uninterested.  

A couple of weeks ago, House Republicans made a motion that would have allowed us to bring important emergency powers reform legislation to the floor for a full vote.

We wanted to bring up House Bill 1557, which we viewed as very balanced. It would have established a greater role for the Legislature during a state of emergency – without taking away the governor's ability to respond quickly to emergencies. It had Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.

Unfortunately, our motion was rejected on a party-line vote of 41-56. The majority party stated if we circumvented the rules or cutoff dates for one bill, it would create an expectation that could be done for other legislation.  

The argument is weak at best. This relates to emergency powers during a pandemic. This is a unique and unprecedented situation.

We had 105 days to examine this issue and work it through the legislative process. There were bills ready to go on Day 1, some with bipartisan co-sponsors. However, only one bill even received a public hearing. The others just sat there. So, to say we missed the cutoff date and it was too late to address emergency powers is misleading.

Our efforts did not start with the legislative session. Below is an excerpt taken from a letter signed by 54 Republican lawmakers to Gov. Inslee, dated May 29, 2020, requesting a special session so we can work together:

Our state government works best when all branches work together. The legislative branch, as a whole, has remained on the sidelines while you exercised your emergency authority. It is time for that to change…  We want to work collaboratively with you and our majority colleagues in the Legislature to craft legislative solutions to help Washingtonians who are dealing with both the pandemic and economic desperation.”

We have asked for a more collaborative approach for almost a year, yet here we are – the session has adjourned, and we continue to be under one-person rule.

The governor was right to call an emergency last spring, and we agree with many of the decisions he has made through the process. However, what constitutes an emergency after 14 months? Shouldn't lawmakers and the thousands and thousands of people they represent have more of a voice? Our state government was not meant to be governed by emergency orders or the decisions of one person for months on end. Citizens deserve to have a stronger voice through those they elected to represent them.

This issue is not unique to Washington state. Legislatures across the country have passed laws aimed at increasing legislative oversight of governors' emergency powers. It is not Republican or Democrats being in control. Both parties have addressed the issue. Laws limiting emergency powers have been enacted in five states where the governorship and both branches of government are controlled by the same party – New York and Colorado where Democrats control all three and Arkansas, Ohio, and Utah where Republicans control the three branches. It is about checks and balances.

Finally, the Maine Policy Institute recently did a study on states and the terms of their governmental balance of power. Washington state ranks in the bottom four because we bestow on our governor the sole authority to determine when and where an emergency exists, and when an emergency ceases to exist.

I am hopeful our declared “emergency” will come to an end soon. If counties are rolled back and additional restrictions are reimposed, there should be input and decisions involving local governments to address unique circumstances. Complete indefinite control from one branch of government is not the way government was intended to function.

All 147 lawmakers representing 49 very different districts deserve to be part of a collaborative process to share and reflect the interests of the citizens we represent.

Rep. Keith Goehner, R-Dryden, represents the 12th Legislative District in the Washington State Legislature. He is the lead Republican on the House Local Government Committee and also serves on the House Environment and Energy and Transportation committees.

State Representative Keith Goehner, 12th Legislative District
122B Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
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