By Sen. Barbara Bailey
Members of our Legislature have the ability to in essence cry “wolf” by tacking a long sentence onto the end of legislation, so it will take effect as soon as the governor signs it into law. Since 1997, 954 bills included the so-called “emergency clause”; 2012 saw 23 of those bills.
The sentence sounds reasonable enough: “This act is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety, or support of the state government and its existing public institutions, and takes effect immediately.” Its purpose is to allow for a quick response to true public emergencies, such as natural disasters or epidemics. Sometimes it has been warranted.
Unfortunately, a bill containing an emergency clause would also be exempt from being repealed by a referendum to the people. Far too often the sentence seems to be included for that purpose – something that is more political than policy-based.
This practice must stop.
As a legislator, my first duty is to serve the people. I take the words of my oath of office seriously and work to uphold the constitution. That is why for the seventh year in a row I am championing a bill that would return the rightful duty of referendum back to the people.
Senate Joint Resolution 8206 would hold the Legislature more accountable and make its workings more transparent to the citizens of this state. This measure, if passed by the Legislature and a vote of the people, would amend the state constitution to allow the inclusion of the emergency clause only as a separate amendment to a bill that is approved by 60 percent of each house of the Legislature.
How can the public trust the Legislature to decide what a true emergency is when this clause has been routinely abused to immediately implement new laws?
For example, in 1995 an emergency clause was used to provide immediate funding for a new baseball stadium in Seattle. The Mariners’ stadium bill isn’t the only instance in which this clause was added to bills that created or increased taxes. Other examples include:
- A 2002 law that suspended the voter-approved two-third vote requirement for tax increases and for expenditures from the state emergency reserve account;
- A 2005 law increasing transportation-related taxes;
- A 2005 law creating the state death tax;
- A 2005 law imposing various state tax increases; and
- The latest massive state tax increase, from 2010.
Were these instances real emergency situations?
More often than not, the clause was added to avoid the voice of the people. Good legislation should be able to withstand the 90-day waiting period before it takes effect, during which time a referendum could be filed.
The referendum process is a right given to the people by our state constitution (Article II, Section 1b) to approve or reject certain state laws. It provides a check on the Legislature and ensures that the lawmaking in Olympia accurately reflects the needs and wants of the entire state of Washington. This is where the power of the people rests.
The most effective way to end the Legislature’s misuse of the emergency clause is a constitutional amendment that would require a supermajority vote of approval. Sixty percent approval acts as an attainable and realistic threshold, while still requiring the checks and balances of a majority vote. Budget bills would be exempt from this requirement.
Anytime the voice of the people is silenced shouldn’t we take a closer look?
SJR 8206 recently came before the Senate Government Operations Committee for a public hearing – that’s more progress than it ever made in past years. I am hopeful that 2013 is the year that the rights of the people come before political convenience and routine.
Sen. Barbara Bailey serves the 10th Legislative District in the Washington State Senate. She is serving her first term in the state Senate after serving 10 years in the state House of Representatives.