Bills to rein in governor’s powers fizzle out in state Legislature

By Patric Haerle

WNPA News Service

OLYMPIA — It’s been one year since Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and calls for a special legislative session and cries of executive overreach have been constant ever since.

A special session was never called, and emergency orders were extended, prompting a flurry of bills from Republicans calling for a limit on executive power in emergencies.

All of those bills are now dead, dying without a single floor vote in the state Legislature.

The bills limited the scope of executive declarations, required state emergencies to be defined more specifically and required input from the Legislature after a set number of days.

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, and the prime sponsor of House Bill 1029, the only one of these bills that was heard in committee, is confident the state’s coronavirus response would have been better with legislative input.

“Any time that an executive consults with the legislative branch regularly, the end product in terms of policy is superior,” Walsh said.

The governor’s office, however, does not view the Republican complaints of executive overreach as legitimate.

“The legislation was misguided as it focused on the governor’s appropriate use of the office’s emergency powers and not on the real source of people’s frustration, the pandemic,” said the governor’s office in a statement. “We look forward to continued discussions with those who have serious ideas for how to improve the state’s COVID response.”

Some Republicans view the governor’s actions as a potential constitutional crisis.

“It’s not about the current governor. It’s not about the current legislative majorities in my mind. This is a constitutional issue, and we need to restore constitutional balance between the branches. And I will run this bill or something very much like it until we get it into law as policy,” Walsh said.

At the public hearing for HB 1029, the bill drew support from outside the state.

Nick Murray, a policy analyst with Maine Policy Center, a nonpartisan institute based in Portland, Maine, advocated for a consistent process, with the executive branch presenting its findings to the legislature, submitting to questioning and receiving a favorable vote to have an emergency extended.

The center recently released a report scoring all 50 states on the concentration of executive powers during emergencies. The report ranked Washington near the bottom of governor-legislator balance, with only two states ranking lower.

The ranking does not take into account recent emergency orders, only the existing laws governors are required to follow when issuing emergencies.

“The constitutional principles of separation of powers and co-equal branches of government are simply too valuable to be cast aside, even in an emergency,” Murray said.

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