OLYMPIA — The Washington Senate Tuesday passed a bill that would give state legislative leaders a new tool to limit the governor’s powers during states of emergency.
Those powers — and the debate over whether they are too strong — have been on constant display the past two years, as Gov. Jay Inslee used his sweeping executive authority to tamp down the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the pandemic, Inslee authored some of the strictest emergency measures in the nation, ranging from closing many businesses before the widespread availability of vaccines to implementing requirements on masking and for tens of thousands of workers to get COVID-19 shots or lose their jobs.
Sponsored by Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, Senate Bill 5909 would give the four legislative leaders — the majority and minority leaders in the Senate and House — the authority to cancel a state of emergency after 90 days has passed if the Legislature is not in session.
The bill, which now heads to the state House, would also allow those four leaders while not in a legislative session to terminate emergency orders by the governor made in a state of emergency which prohibit an activity. The bill requires all four legislative leaders, two Republicans and two Democrats, to agree upon that action.
“This bill is not about one mandate or one governor, it’s about a system with adequate checks and balances,” Randall said Tuesday in a floor speech.
The legislation passed by a vote of 29-20, with two Republican lawmakers joining Democrats to approve it.
“I was disappointed in the bill, but it was better than nothing,” Sen. Simon Sefzik, R-Ferndale, said in a statement after the vote.
Many Republicans, who have been sidelined for much of the pandemic response, thrashed the bill as not doing much to rein in the governor.
They assailed the requirement that all four legislative leaders be in agreement, and unsuccessfully sponsored amendments to strengthen lawmakers’ ability to act.
“We haven’t stood up and been involved like we should be,” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said during the debate.
Washington’s emergency powers statutes — which state lawmakers authorized decades ago — grant the governor broad authority to take actions such as setting curfews and restricting gatherings.
Democratic leaders and Inslee have defended the broad powers, pointing to Washington’s low death rate due to COVID-19 compared to other states. They note that legislative leaders — including Republicans — have reauthorized a host of the governor’s emergency orders across the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the emergency powers law has been held up as constitutional in numerous court challenges over the past two years.
During that time, Republicans have sponsored a range of proposals to limit executive authority. They have not been given serious consideration in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
In a statement Tuesday after the bill passed, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said, “We still question the necessity of this bill.”
If the legislation passes the House and gets to Inslee’s desk, “The governor’s office will of course review the legislation to assure there are no issues in the language that would unnecessarily inhibit actions by future governors,” Faulk said.
But, Faulk added, “We’re pleased this legislation does not hinder our state’s current response to COVID.”