As state’s COVID emergency enters third year, Senate Freedom Caucus calls for governor to relinquish power

Senators bristle as governor blames Republican opposition to never-ending emergency on Donald Trump

OLYMPIA – Mask mandates are ending in Washington state March 12, but it’s no cause for celebration, say members of the Senate Freedom Caucus, because Washington’s COVID emergency continues, and the people remain shut out of the decision-making process.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday that he is ending most indoor mask mandates nine days ahead of his previously announced schedule, in line with new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control that masks are no longer needed. However, the governor retains sweeping powers to suspend laws and issue orders, and mask requirements remain in place for hospitals, nursing homes, public transit and jails and prisons. Asked at a news conference about Republican calls for him to relinquish his emergency authority, the governor declared, “They always want to follow Donald Trump. That’s the simple problem here.”

The Senate Freedom Caucus, an issue-oriented caucus within the Washington State Senate, bristled Monday at the governor’s remarks. The four Republican members say the governor’s fierce partisanship and eagerness to associate political opposition in Washington state with the former president demonstrates why Inslee should no longer be calling the shots on COVID.

“This is why we’re so divided,” said Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview. “We have a person elected to a position of great responsibility who spouts utter nonsense. For our state’s chief executive to say our opposition to his rule-by-decree has anything to do with the former president is a straw-man argument. Inslee should be better than that. The crisis is over, but with a crack like that one, he shows his desperation to retain unchecked power.”

Gov. Jay Inslee declared the COVID emergency Feb. 29, 2020, under a state law that allows him to decide when emergencies begin and end. Washington is one of only four states that allow the governor to decide when to relinquish extraordinary authority. Two years after the declaration of emergency, COVID is on the wane. Infection rates and hospitalizations have plummeted 64 percent nationwide in the last two weeks, according to Axios, a national data-gathering firm. Washington has the lowest transmission rate nationwide at 6 cases per 100,000 people.

“The numbers now make it clear beyond any shadow of a doubt that the emergency is over. COVID can now be managed, without sacrificing our constitutional system of checks and balances,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “Gov. Inslee should have used today’s news conference to announce an immediate end to all mandates and all emergency proclamations. It’s time to return to the regular order and address the issues related to COVID-19 in the Legislature, where they can be fully debated and voted on by the people’s representatives.

“The majority has allowed this governor to rule unchecked for the greater part of two years. Even at this point, when it is clear that we are in the waning days of the pandemic and life is returning to normal all around the country, this governor is refusing to relinquish his emergency powers and full end unnecessary, overreaching mandates. He is continuing to ice out the people and their elected representatives in the Legislature, in a way no other state can match. Even in other states with Democratic governors, like Oregon, Nevada and California, they have had special sessions during the pandemic emergency, but not Washington. And the Democrat-controlled majorities in the House and Senate have let Governor Inslee get away with it by failing to stand up for the separation of powers and the people of Washington.”

Lawmakers have always had the ability to exercise oversight and pass legislation regarding COVID decision-making. But the Legislature, under control of a Democratic majority, has chosen not to exercise its authority. The lack of legislative oversight prevented lawmakers from assessing the merit of the governor’s arbitrary decrees on business closures and masks, and his mass firing of unvaccinated state employees, harshest of all vaccine mandates nationwide.

“He can show us his numbers, and we will show him the numbers of drug overdoses, suicides, fired workers and young people suffering emotional problems and denied college educations, said Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn.

“Here we are, two years later, and the governor has yet to tell us his exit strategy. The governor’s absurd comments today show he is digging in his heels, and he has no hesitation at misrepresenting the opposition to achieve his ends. It’s starting to look like the governor won’t give up his emergency powers until he finally leaves office.”

Lawmakers this year are considering a measure favored by legislative Democrats that would enact a modest reform to emergency powers statutes. Senate Bill 5909 would allow legislative leaders to terminate a declaration of emergency by agreement between Republicans and Democrats when the Legislature is not in session. Because the state constitution allows lawmakers to call themselves into session and pass legislation on any subject, the proposal merely streamlines a power the Legislature already has.

“The problem is that the Legislature, under control of the majority party, has been unwilling to exercise its power,” explained Sen. Jim McCune, R-Graham. “Does anyone expect that to change? What we heard today from the governor was the opposite of statesmanship. It’s time for this declaration of emergency to end.”