Effort to curb governor’s emergency powers looking bleak, Wilson says

Public interest immense as record numbers register opinions on Senate, House measures

OLYMPIA – Bills to place limits on the governor’s emergency powers set new records for public interest Friday and Monday as the measures were heard in legislative committees, but Sen. Jeff Wilson says the prospect of meaningful action appears increasingly unlikely during the 2022 legislative session.

A weak Democratic proposal is scheduled for a vote in the Senate State Government and Elections Committee Wednesday, the final meeting prior to a Thursday deadline for passage of policy bills by legislative committees. But by late Monday, no vote had been scheduled on a tougher Republican-sponsored House measure, and a similar Senate measure has received no consideration from the Democratic majority.

Wilson, R-Longview, ranking Republican on the Senate State Government and Elections Committee, noted that more than 5,000 people signed in to register their opinions on each of the two bills that received hearings, setting records for greatest public interest regarding specific pieces of legislation since legislative hearings went all-online in 2021. A Senate hearing Friday on the Democratic proposal drew 5,614 sign-ins, while a hearing Monday on a Republican House proposal drew 5,405.

“I am getting the sinking feeling that my colleagues aren’t paying attention, and by the time we adjourn we will have done nothing meaningful to rein in the governor’s emergency authority,” Wilson said. “The only bill that may advance is a Democratic proposal that really doesn’t do much. When it comes to putting checks and balances on the governor, my colleagues certainly seem to be timid.”

Monday marked the 702nd day since Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for COVID-19, giving him sweeping authority to suspend laws and issue orders. Current law, designed for natural disasters and short-term crises, allows an emergency declaration to remain in place until lifted by the governor. As the current COVID emergency has dragged on nearly two years, however, the continuing decrees from the governor’s office have raised concerns about lack of public input, dubious science and heavy-handed use of authority, including the governor’s mass firings of state employees who balked at his vaccination order.

On Friday, the Senate State Government Committee heard Senate Bill 5909, a Democratic proposal that would allow a state of emergency to continue indefinitely, but would give leaders of the House and Senate’s Republican and Democratic caucuses the option of terminating it after 90 days if all four can reach agreement. The provision would come into play only when the Legislature is not in session. However, even without the bill, lawmakers already have the power to take action to terminate a state of emergency if they are willing, by passing legislation during session, or by calling themselves back to Olympia when the Legislature is not in session.

Republicans advocate stronger measures, requiring the consent of the Legislature before an emergency is allowed to drag on.

SB 5943, introduced by Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, would require legislative approval for any declaration of emergency lasting longer than 30 days, either by a vote, or by agreement of three of the Legislature’s four political caucuses when lawmakers are not in session. That bill has not received a hearing in the Democrat-controlled Senate. A House Republican proposal, HB 1772, would limit a state of emergency to 60 days unless extended by the Legislature or agreement of legislative leaders. Though the bill was heard Monday in the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee, no vote is scheduled on that measure.

“Our situation points up a serious problem with the state law that grants emergency powers to the governor,” Wilson said. “We all agree the governor should have special powers to respond to crises until the Legislature can weigh in. But no one realized we could have an emergency that would last forever. This is the second legislative session since the emergency began, and so far my Democratic colleagues have been reluctant to do anything to challenge the governor’s authority. I think even they must be getting uncomfortable as this state of emergency keeps going like the Energizer bunny.

“Here we are, about to celebrate the second anniversary of this emergency, and the governor still hasn’t shared with us what it will take for him to relinquish his power. The people are getting fed up, and the record numbers we saw sign in for these hearings are proof of it.”

The two emergency powers bills set records for the number of sign-ins since COVID forced the Legislature to conduct its business online last year. The number of sign-ins includes those who expressed a view on the bill but did not wish to testify. The previous record was 4,858 for a measure heard in January to define and restrict assault weapons.