WA legislature plans to limit governor’s emergency powers

Majority Democrats in the Legislature indicate they may be willing to impose restrictions on the governor’s broad emergency powers as Washington’s COVID-19 state of emergency approaches two years.

Northwest Public News reports that the state’s Senate Government and Elections Committee held a public hearing Friday on a proposal by state Sen. Emily Randall, a Democrat, that would authorize top House and Senate leaders – if they all agreed – to fire a governor – declared a state of emergency after 90 days.

“There is a gap in the checks and balances in our system of government,” Randall told the committee. “There is a place where we don’t have an equal balance of power and this bill seeks to address that.”

Randall’s bill, which has seven other Democratic co-sponsors, would also allow Senate Majority and Minority Leaders and the Speaker and House Minority Leader to terminate any orders from the governor prohibiting activities.

Additionally, Randall’s bill would make permanent the Legislature’s current role in helping to decide how federal funds are spent in an emergency.

This new legislative oversight during a state of emergency would apply only when the legislature is not in session. The bill does not address the role of the Legislative Assembly in managing an emergency during a session.

Currently, Washington’s Emergency Powers Act places no time limit on how long a state of emergency lasts. It also allows the governor to issue sweeping emergency proclamations, such as Governor Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order at the start of the pandemic.

The Legislature’s role is limited to approving or rejecting any waivers or suspensions of state law after 30 days — something it has done dozens of times since the pandemic began. If the Legislative Assembly is in session, the entire House and Senate must vote on these extensions. When legislators are not in session, the job falls to the top leaders of each legislative caucus.

Minority Republicans, who have opposed many of Inslee’s COVID-19 orders, have been calling for changes to the state’s emergency powers law for months.

“Nearly 700 days into this state of emergency, our fellow Senate Democrats finally recognize that there is an issue involving emergency powers,” Republican Senator Lynda Wilson said in a statement.

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