Yakima area lawmakers push to limit Gov. Inslee’s emergency powers

Washington State House Republicans are pushing forward on a bill that would restrict the governor’s emergency powers and allow lawmakers to make the final decision on when a state of emergency should end.

House Bill 1772 would limit a state of emergency to 60 days, unless extended by the legislature through a concurrent resolution. It would also prevent the governor from immediately issuing a similar order after the time period is up without legislative approval.

“There must be limits; the framers of our state constitution never intended for the governor to wield the kind of power he’s maintained for more than 22 months now,” said Rep. Chris Corry, who represents the 14th Legislative District and sponsored the bill.

Corry said lawmakers previously gave governors broad authority in emergency situations so they would be able to respond quickly to urgent events like earthquakes, tsunamis or other natural disasters.

“Obviously, when the pandemic first hit, there was a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty and an emergency order made perfect sense, especially as it was right as we were leaving session and we didn’t know what we were faced with here,” Corry said.

A state of emergency has been in effect for COVID-19 for the past 680 days, during which Gov. Jay Inslee has issued dozens of proclamations. Some shut down businesses or schools, while others required state or health care employees to get vaccinated; all were made without legislative approval.

Corry said it’s difficult to justify continuing a state of emergency for years  because it gives almost unilateral authority to the executive branch and prevents lawmakers from representing the best interests of their constituents.

“An emergency does not last for two years: we may be in a crisis, we may have a lot of stuff going on that we need to address,” Corry said. “But there’s no reason to have one person in charge of the entire state government and their response to the pandemic.”

Rep. Jeremie Dufault, representing the 15th Legislative District, is one of more than a dozen representatives who have signed on in support of the bill. He said several of the governer’s pandemic proclamations were confusing and caused issues in Eastern Washington that could have been prevented by having local input.

“If we could have just gotten a chance to say, ‘We understand what you’re trying to do, but maybe this is a better way to do it,’ We could have avoided some issues early on in the pandemic,” Dufault said.

The bill specifies that the legislature can terminate or extend a state of emergency by passing a resolution if they’re in session or by all four members of the leadership of the senate and house of representatives. The governor may also call a special session to vote on an extension of the state of emergency.

Dufault said the bill would apply to previous proclamations made under the COVID-19 state of emergency. He said that means once the bill is signed into law, those proclamations would stay in effect for another 60 days.

“We need to have the legislators closest to the people making the decisions that are best for Washington state,” Dufault said

After that, lawmakers can vote on which proclamations will stay in place and which will be terminated. Corry said it’s possible legislators would keep the same mandates and restrictions in place.

“But it would be taken by a vote of 98 members in the house and I think that that’s better for representative government,” Corry said. “We can’t live under one person’s rule. That’s not how we’re designed to function.”

Several similar emergency powers reform bills were proposed during the 2021 session — including House Bills 1020, 1029, 1060 and 1557 — but none of them passed and only one was given a public hearing in committee.

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