As Washington state lawmakers have deadlocked on bills dealing with gun safety and climate change, Gov. Jay Inslee has taken to using executive orders. He has written more than the state’s two previous governors did in their first terms.

Share story

OLYMPIA — As Washington state lawmakers have deadlocked in recent years on bills dealing with gun safety and climate change, Gov. Jay Inslee has taken to using his executive pen.

With eight months left in his term, Inslee has issued more executive orders than either of the two previous governorsdid in their first terms. Inslee has now issued 21 executive orders, compared to 16 by Chris Gregoire and 13 by Gary Locke in each of their first four years.

In a handful of instances, Inslee has tried to use the orders where he has failed to break through the deadlock in Olympia — to the protest of Republican lawmakers.

In 2014, Inslee issued an order intended to reduce the state’s carbon emissions. With the order came a task force to draft carbon-reduction legislation, and Inslee called for a study of clean-fuel standards and directed state agencies to support clean energy.

His action came after the Legislature in 2009 scuttled a plan by then-Gov. Gregoire to set up cap-and-trade policy for greenhouse-gas emissions.

This year, Inslee signed an order intended to strengthen background checks on gun buyers, better collect and analyze data on firearms deaths and institute a statewide suicide-prevention plan.

“I think when it becomes clear that there’s no forward momentum in the Legislature, we see a possible opportunity within executive order to do something,” said Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith.

Broad-based action on most issues can only come through laws passed by the Legislature, or in the recent case of education funding, an order from the state Supreme Court.

So executive orders are “small goals” to “keep things moving in the right direction,” Smith said.

But if Inslee is looking to executive orders on certain issues, GOP Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler says that’s a sign the governor’s agenda isn’t winning sufficient support among lawmakers.

“I guess it shows that he’s not as effective as getting his legislation through as his predecessors were,” said Schoesler, of Ritzville.

But ask Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, about Inslee’s executive orders and he’ll cite the Republican-controlled state Senate that has fiercely opposed action on climate change and other Democratic priorities.

“I would say the biggest difference between Inslee and governors Gregoire and Locke,” said Ranker, “is that Gregoire and Locke had a Legislature that functioned.”

At the federal level, presidents’ use of executive orders has historically been criticized as a way to get around Congress. Some, such as President Obama’s plan to shield from deportation millions of immigrants who entered the country illegally, can have enormous impact — though a challenge to that order now awaits a Supreme Court ruling. Many, however, deal with rather mundane, bureaucratic issues.

Governors use executive orders for a range of purposes. Some can trigger emergency powers during natural disasters and other crises, others create commissions to study or advise on an issue. They also can tackle management and administrative issues such as regulatory reform and coordination among agencies.

Inslee has signed orders on expanding opportunities for telework and flexible hours for state employees; creating an advisory council on homelessness; aiming to have state agencies better protect personal data; and improving voter-registration assistance.

But Inslee has issued fewer executive orders than the 33 by Mike Lowry in his one term as governor, or the 36 by Booth Gardner in his first four years.

State law grants fewer powers to its governor on executive orders compared to other states, according to data from the National Governors Association.

For instance, many other states may allow governors to reorganize state agencies, or create new ones. Washington does not.

Republican lawmakers have panned some of Inslee’s actions on climate change and more recently, an executive order exploring the creation of an agency-level department to deal with children’s issues.

Of that order, Schoesler said, “Are we making more efficient government, or just bigger government?”

State Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, who is a member of the task force studying whether to create an agency devoted to children’s issues, said executive orders can outline a path for finding consensus between the major political parties.

And it can help focus lawmakers on a particular problem when “there are so many issues flying around.”

She applauded Inslee’s executive order on firearms, which aims to better collect and analyze data on firearms-related deaths and injuries. Having better data “will move people” to act on gun safety, she said.

With executive orders, Kagi said, there can be “more direction and support to have the governor state at the outset … this is something he supports and wants to move forward.”

Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, said Inslee’s January executive order on gun safety threatened a coalition’s work on suicide prevention.

Throughout 2015, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, as well as public-health and gun- rights advocates had been working on legislation to prevent suicides by firearm, according to Gottlieb.

In January, Inslee announced an executive order intended to strengthen background checks by improving information-sharing among government agencies and reduce suicides with a statewide prevention plan.

“A lot of us had the feeling that it was an attempt to undermine” the group’s work, Gottlieb said.

A suicide-prevention bill ultimately passed the Legislature and got the governor’s approval to become law — and Gottlieb said he was happy about that.

Among other things, House Bill 2793 established a statewide task force to try to reduce the number of suicides by firearms. The task force includes members of the National Rifle Association and gun industry, as well as public health officials, law- enforcement officials, veterans advocates and those who were close to someone who died by suicide.

Smith said that although the lawmakers putting together that bill, “were doing really great work … we had other measures of authority to pursue and that’s what we focused our executive order on.”