Washington Republicans make last-ditch effort to curb Inslee's emergency powers

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Washington Republicans made one last Hail Mary pass to restrict Gov. Jay Inslee's emergency powers in the final stretch of a historic legislative session.

Calls to hand the reins of Washington's shutdowns from the grip of the governor over to the state legislature have bled across party lines since the onset of the pandemic. Critics on the left and right have condemned the shutdowns for failing to stop the state's rising caseload and decimating local businesses. In Olympia, more lawmakers have come to agree their changing health metrics have failed to line up with the hard science Inslee promised to follow more than a year ago.

Outcry over Inslee's COVID shutdowns has come to a head in Olympia following his denial last week of Pierce County's request for 55,000 more vaccine doses to help it keep up with the state's rising weekly immunization rate. Pierce was one of three counties pushed back to Inslee's more restrictive Phase 2 of reopening this month. The news only served to prove Republican talking points.

“The governor just moved three counties back to Phase 2 in his reopening plan,” said state Rep. Drew MacEwen, prime sponsor of House Concurrent Resolution 4402 and House Bill 1557. “The state lawmakers who represent these counties had no say in the decision. This is not how our state should operate.”

On Friday, the CDC's COVID Tracker put the percentage of Washingtonians fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at more than 25%. Another 39% have gotten their first shot. Those rates are of little comfort for state health officials concerned about Washington's weekly case rates returning to four-digit totals.

Gubernatorial reform has remained a one-sided conversation in Olympia where the Democratic majority has kept silent on the topic. Bringing the issue to a vote proves a more difficult task for a Republican minority that has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the issue, including one failed amendment marrying an emergency powers bill to Senate Democrats' proposed budget.

American governors can trace the origin of their emergency powers back to 17th century British colonial rule which gave governors appointed by the crown near absolute authority. Today, gubernatorial power varies from state to state. Six states limit emergency orders to 60 days or less without a nod from state lawmakers, according to the National Council on State Legislatures. In Louisiana, state lawmakers can block such orders with the vote of a single chamber.

The Washington Constitution allows the governor to issue states of emergency in instances of public disorder, natural disaster, or riot, which may not suspend rule of law for longer than 30 days without approval by the state legislature. In 2008, state lawmakers voted to waive those limits in select areas like collecting state fees. Though emergency orders can be defeated by a vote of the full state legislature, the state's Democratic leadership has not moved to hold one.

Washington's COVID shutdowns, some Democrats argue, saved thousands of lives when you look at the state's overall low death toll. House Republicans, who claim statewide shutdowns did little to foster safer behavior, want them to go on record with that opinion.

One bill still on the table in Republican circles is House Bill 1557, which would allow states of emergency to live and die at the hand of state lawmakers 60 days after their declaration by the governor. The House GOP caucus unveiled its latest and final attempt to pass it on Thursday in the form of House Concurrent Resolution 4402. The resolution would waive standing legislative rules and allow HB 1557 bill to see a vote on the House floor. On Friday, that effort failed in a vote of 41-56 along party lines.

“We acknowledge the governor needs certain emergency powers, but there should be limits,” said House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm. “House Bill 1557 would establish a proper role for the Legislature during emergencies. While it has Democratic sponsors, we need more Democrats to step up and support our House floor efforts so the legislation can be considered and receive a full vote.”

The failed resolution represented the last chance Washington Republicans have to check Inslee's powers before the Washington Legislature adjourns on April 25.

The debate over gubernatorial power is a national one stretching from Hawaii to Wisconsin. This year, two dozen state legislatures are considering bills to check their governors' emergency authority. Friday proved Washington will have to wait to be part of that conversation.

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