OLYMPIA — Conservatives in Washington spent much of 2020 fuming that Gov. Jay Inslee used the broad powers given him by the Legislature to enact restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.
And unlike other states where lawmakers held emergency sessions to respond to the pandemic, Inslee and Democratic leaders didn’t call a special session in Washington.
Now, Republican lawmakers are proposing bills to curb the governor’s emergency powers and a constitutional amendment to make it easier for the Legislature to call itself back into session.
With Democrats controlling strong majorities in both the House and Senate, the proposals are not likely to pass, but they pose a philosophical debate over executive power and checks and balances in government.
The legislation comes as conservative organizers plan to protest at the Legislature this month when lawmakers convene, in a session that will take place mostly remotely due to the pandemic.
The lack of a special session last year frustrated Republicans, who since spring had sought to gather to cut the budget amid a then-bleak projected revenue shortfall, and later to provide business relief, or weigh in on other pandemic issues.
Under current law, the governor can call a special session, or lawmakers can call themselves into one with a two-thirds majority in both chambers.
In response, Chris Gildon, a Republican senator-elect from Puyallup, is sponsoring Senate Joint Resolution 8201, a proposed amendment to the state constitution.
If approved, it would ask state voters to lower the threshold for the Legislature to call itself into a special session to a 60% vote of lawmakers, rather than the two-thirds majority needed now.
“Certainly I’ve heard from constituents all throughout the year wondering, ‘Where is the legislative branch, and what are you doing to represent me?'” said Gildon, a state representative who won election this November to the Senate.
“As we certainly have seen this year, we can never fully anticipate all future circumstances we’re going to be faced with,” added Gildon. “And when those circumstances arrive, I think it’s really vital that the people have a voice, and that their elected representatives can thoughtfully and vigorously debate whatever the topic is at hand.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, is sponsoring House Bill 1029, which would limit the scope of a governor’s emergency declaration. That order is the foundation that has served as the basis for Inslee’s restrictions this year.
If approved, HB 1029 would restrict emergency proclamations to 14 days before they must be reauthorized by the Legislature or legislative leaders. The proposal would also require a separate proclamation for each county.
“What we’ve seen, I believe, in our response to the COVID outbreaks, is too much of a broad-stroke response on the state’s part,” said Walsh. “And I think in many cases where state action and even dramatic action was warranted, it should have been focused more narrowly on those geographic hot spots …”
And there are other proposals. Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, has sponsored House Bill 1013, which seeks to rein in rule-making by state agencies carrying out emergency orders and House Bill 1004, which would curb the state health secretary’s emergency powers.
Under Inslee’s orders, Washington has seen some of the fewest coronavirus deaths per capita and cases per capita of any state, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
Asked about the GOP proposals, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk pointed to states with fewer restrictions — and more confirmed cases and deaths per capita.
“During the pandemic, we have seen in many states what happens when decisive action is not taken: Large increases in infections, hospitalizations and deaths,” Faulk wrote in an email. “The focus on proclamations is misplaced, in that the real limitation in our lives comes from the destructive nature of the pandemic itself.”
As the Legislature considers those proposals, conservative demonstrators are planning a daily protest at the Capitol. Organizer Tyler Miller said the demonstrations are against the closure of the Capitol building because of the pandemic.
The legislative session that begins in January will be held largely remotely, with committee sessions, public hearings and floor sessions conducted by teleconference.
“We’re protesting the unconstitutional way that this session is going to be conducted, with locking the public out, specifically of the legislative building,” Miller, 40, an engineering technician and Bremerton resident, said in an interview.
Miller — who organized one of last spring’s protests at the Capitol against pandemic restrictions — cited Article 2, Section 11 of the state constitution. Part of that section states that, “The doors of each house shall be kept open, except when the public welfare shall require secrecy.”
That specific language originally came from Wisconsin’s constitution in 1889, according to Hugh Spitzer, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, “and we don’t have any Washington court decisions on it.”
In an email, Spitzer said that in his view, the “provisions state a basic principle that legislative proceedings should be in public unless the legislature reasonably (non-arbitrarily) determines that there is a legitimate reason to keep a particular deliberation in secret.”
That language is focused on open debates and open government, Spitzer wrote, “much more than whether the building happens to be open to the public or not.”
“If, because of the pandemic, the legislature decides to close the building but continue to hold its sessions publicly on Zoom or otherwise, the state constitution is not being violated,” Spitzer added.
Miller said he would cancel the demonstrations if the Legislature allowed at least a few members of the public in to witness activity on the House and Senate floors — where a handful of lawmakers and staff are expected to be on hand.
Demonstrators will seek to enter the closed Capitol each day, but, “We’re not there to cause trouble, we’re not there to break down doors, to occupy the building,” Miller said. “We’re there simply to observe our constitutional right.”
Miller’s demonstration comes as tensions during political protests at the Capitol have gradually escalated. Shootings have occurred during two political clashes last month around the Capitol.