OLYMPIA — Thought experiment for Democrats: What would it be like living under two years of emergency orders drafted by a Gov. Tim Eyman?
The anti-tax activist known for his initiatives to slash car-tab fees testified in a public hearing Monday against broad emergency powers of the type Gov. Jay Inslee has used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Instead of him shutting down certain businesses … I say you don’t have to pay your car tabs at all,” said Eyman, who ran for governor in 2020 but didn’t clear the primary.
“At a certain point, I believe you have to keep the checks and balances that you have,” Eyman continued, adding that he doesn’t believe in emergency powers “at all.”
Before the pandemic, Washington’s broad and powerful emergency statutes didn’t attract much notice.
Under state law, those powers — given generations ago by the Legislature to the governor — don’t have an expiration date, and they grant the governor broad authority to do things like restrict gatherings and set curfews.
Washington’s statute goes even further, allowing governors authority over “such other activities as he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace,” according to the law.
Inslee and Democratic leaders have pointed to the success of Washington’s response, with the state having one of the lowest death rates due to COVID in the nation. And since the pandemic’s early days, the emergency-power law has been held up as constitutional in dozens of court challenges.
That’s little balm for Republicans — a minority in the state House and Senate — who have felt largely shut out of the response to the pandemic amid unified Democratic control.
Now, in the second legislative session held largely remotely due to COVID, Democratic lawmakers have allowed public hearings on proposals — one Democratic and one Republican — to put some curbs on the governor’s powers.
In order to advance this year, the bills need to be voted out of their committees by Thursday.
Each hearing drew more than 5,000 people to testify — with the overwhelming majority in favor of adding some limits to the executive branch’s authority.
On Monday, House lawmakers held a hearing — the one where Eyman spoke — on a more ambitious proposal to curb the governor’s powers.
Sponsored by Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima, House Bill 1772 would, among other things, limit a state of emergency to 60 days unless extended by the Legislature and allow lawmakers to terminate specific restrictions taken under that emergency order.
“One of the things that impacted me the most during the last two years of the state of emergency were the panicked calls I’d get from businesses and individuals whenever they heard there was going to be a press conference” with the governor, Corry said.
“We’re not meant as people to live under long-term executive orders,” he added. “And the stress caused by living in fear and uncertainty is really not something I think any of us want our constituents to experience.”
Meanwhile, last week, lawmakers heard a proposal by Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, that would allow the four legislative leaders — the minority and majority leaders in the House and Senate — to cancel a state of emergency after 90 days.
In an interview, Randall said she’d at one recent point received more than 1,000 emails within 48 hours from residents calling for changes to the emergency power laws.
“There’s some question about whether or not one person should have control for so long,” she said.
If either bill advances in this year’s 60-day legislative session, it’s likely to be Randall’s Senate Bill 5909 — but a key pair of Democratic leaders don’t sound super enthused.
Asked about limits to his emergency powers last week in a regularly scheduled news conference, Inslee pointed to Washington’s low death rate and his work with the Democratic-controlled House and Senate during the pandemic.
“I’m just not very excited about this, because the Legislature has embraced what we’re doing,” Inslee said.
When drafting the two-year state budget last year, lawmakers made decisions on disbursing billions of dollars in federal COVID aid.
And even with the governor’s broad authority, the four legislative leaders already have the power to stop some emergency orders after 30 days, such as those that waive statutory obligations like rules involving liquor permits and inspections of long-term care facilities. The leaders have largely signed off to extend those orders throughout the pandemic.
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said she doesn’t have an objection to considering Randall’s bill if the Senate approves it.
But, “We’re nationally recognized as a state that has led the way in saving people’s lives … and the governor has made really good decisions,” Jinkins said during a question-and-answer session with reporters.
Jinkins also cast doubt on whether Randall’s bill would do much to change anything. With a two-thirds vote in each chamber, lawmakers have the power to call themselves into a special session and take action on emergency powers.
“We can call ourselves into special session, we can end any governor’s emergency powers at any time we want to, as a Legislature,” Jinkins said. “We could do that right now with the governor’s emergency powers, if we thought that was what we should be doing.”