Comment: Inslee dropped ball in touting pandemic response

Comparing the state’s emergency orders to winning the Super Bowl sidesteps sacrifices and losses.

By Sen. John Braun / For The Herald

Politicians often say things they wish they hadn’t. Sometimes we’re trying to be funny and the humor falls flat. Sometimes anger or frustration gets the better of us. And sometimes, a politician will say something so flippant and insulting, out of total disregard for those who are suffering, that even supporters’ eyebrows are raised.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent response to a reporter about reforming Washington’s executive-powers law, in the wake of the pandemic, falls into this last category.

“I’m not sure I want to reform a system that just won the Super Bowl.”

First, the comment completely misses the point. Republicans, and some Democrats, are calling for executive-powers reform not to punish the current governor, but to more clearly define the authority the executive branch has during a declared state of emergency. How long can any governor of Washington let an emergency order continue before it must be reviewed and approved by the Legislature? When do the people get to weigh in? When are the checks and balances provided in our Constitution restored?

Republicans sponsored several bills during this year’s session to update the 1969 executive-powers law, but majority Democrats wouldn’t give even one a hearing. Instead, the first bill they passed, which took effect immediately, abdicated what little oversight the Legislature did have and gave the governor unchecked authority; like a monarch or a dictator.

Second, is surviving 16 months of sickness, death, financial ruin, desperation and mental crises a reason to spike the ball, especially while people are still suffering and grieving their losses? What a stunningly tone-deaf dismissal of all the hardships experienced by people across the state.

Declaring a state of emergency was the right thing to do and, although it was tough to handle sometimes, the precautions people had to take did save lives. I won’t dispute that. But the governor’s actions also had considerable collateral damage that should not be so callously brushed off.

The state Employment Security Department reports that we have 175,000 fewer jobs today than we did before the pandemic. We had the fifth-highest number of business closures in the country, thousands of which are permanent. News stories about the new jobs in our economy are misleading. Those jobs aren’t new. Someone held them before the shutdowns.

A recent covid-19 survey conducted by several state agencies found nearly 60 percent of our high schoolers feel sad or depressed most days and nearly 1 in 5 contemplated suicide in the previous 12 months. Some of our own constituents, even as young as 10 years old, have taken their lives.

According to the Department of Health, drug-overdose deaths in Washington were up by more than 30 percent from the same time frame in the previous year. The total drug-overdose deaths (1,216) were several times more than the covid deaths for people under age 60 during the same time frame (251).

Families whose loved ones committed suicide because of the mental-health impact of the restrictions don’t feel like a victory parade. Families who lost small businesses they’d operated for decades, providing jobs and contributing to their communities, don’t want to kiss a trophy. No one who waded through the swamp of fraud and incompetence at the Employment Security Department, only to wait months for their benefits, cares to give the governor a high-five.

Instead of comparing the past 16 months to something as trivial as a football game, even metaphorically, the governor should view it more as a war. Washington survived the battle; better than many other states did. But we will be recovering from the fallout for years to come. That recovery must be managed by the legislators whose job it is to make laws and appropriate funds for recovery projects or assistance.

After a critical-incident response, those who managed it should take a hard look to evaluate what worked and what didn’t. One thing that isn’t working here is the governor’s ability to drag out a state of emergency indefinitely with no accountability to the people.

In the meantime, the governor should apologize for equating a pandemic with a game and dismissing the suffering that continues across Washington. His “Super Bowl” reference was thoughtless.

State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, is the Senate minority leader.

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