Washington Senate OKs bill on governor’s emergency powers

The measure passed the Democrat-led chamber on a 29-20 vote and now heads to the House for consideration.

By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Nearly two years after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Washington Senate on Tuesday approved a measure that authorizes legislative leaders to terminate an emergency after 90 days if the Legislature is not in session.

Senate Bill 5909 passed the Democrat-led chamber on a 29-20 vote and now heads to the House, also held by Democrats, for consideration.

Democratic Sen. Emily Randall, the bill’s sponsor, said there is “room for improvement in our checks and balances of government, especially in times of emergency.”

“This bill is not about one mandate or one governor, it’s about a system with adequate checks and balances,” she said during debate.

Sen. June Robinson. D-Everett, was the lone Democrat to vote against the bill. She said she thought it went too far.

“I just really believe in an emergency that there needs to be one person in charge,” Robinson said. “I listened to the arguments. I just don’t agree with them.”

Two Republicans — Sens. Brad Hawkins of East Wenatchee and Simon Sefzik of Ferndale — voted for it.

This legislation deals with the limits of a governor’s powers in an emergency.

The Legislature has no authority to terminate a state of emergency declared by a governor. But the leaders of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in each chamber can choose to not extend some emergency orders of the governor after they’ve been in effect for 30 days. Legislative leaders have extended the vast majority of those type of orders since the pandemic started.

The bill approved by the Senate allows the majority and minority leaders of each chamber to terminate a state of emergency in writing after 90 days if the Legislature is not in session.

It also allows majority and minority leaders — when the Legislature is not in session — to terminate in writing an order or orders issued by the governor that prohibits activities.

All four leaders would need to agree for either a state of emergency or emergency orders to be rescinded.

The biggest complaints from Republicans, the minority party in both chambers, have stemmed from the broader powers the Democratic governor has used during the pandemic, which have included limits on gatherings, vaccination requirements for state and health care workers and a statewide indoor mask mandate.

Republicans argued that the underlying bill doesn’t do much, and they unsuccessfully sought two floor amendments, including one that would have orders issued by the governor prohibiting certain activities expire after 90 days unless at least three of the four legislative leaders extended them.

“This bill does not fix the problem,” Republican Sen. John Braun said. “It allows the majority to do exactly what has been done for two years, which is nothing.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than two dozen states have bills pending that look for direct legislative involvement in or oversight of certain gubernatorial or executive actions during emergencies, with many of them bills that are carried over from last year.

Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Inslee, questioned the necessity of the bill and said in an email that “the vote did not change in any way the governor’s emergency orders.”

“We look forward to moving to the next phase in our COVID response,” Faulk wrote. “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.”

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