Emergency powers go unaddressed in 2021 legislative session

The Legislature adjourned the 2021 session without addressing one of the most pressing issues before us – emergency powers reform. Washington state law allows the governor to waive or suspend laws, decide what is essential and prohibit certain activities.

The executive branch needs the ability to respond to pandemics and other emergencies, but there must be limits. Our state government was not designed to be under one-person control or operate under emergency orders and proclamations for what is now going on 15 months.  

Despite numerous bills introduced and a procedural motion during debate in the House of Representatives, the majority party was uninterested in addressing this issue.   

While the governor announced on May 13 all counties will move to Phase 3 and the state is on track to be fully reopened on June 30, there has been no indication from his office that the “state of emergency” will end at that time.

Businesses are operating, students are back in school, sporting events are taking place with some spectators so when does the “emergency” declaration end? This is far from over. What happens if there are setbacks with our COVID numbers or the reopening process? Legislators will continue to be shut out of the process. The 2021 session was definitely a missed opportunity for emergency powers reform.

During session, House Republicans made every effort to bring some balance to this issue. At the end of session, we made a motion that would have allowed us to bring important emergency powers reform legislation to the floor for a vote.

The legislation established a greater role for the Legislature during a state of emergency – without taking away the governor's ability to respond quickly to emergencies. It had Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. Unfortunately, our motion was rejected on a party-line vote. 

Our efforts started long before session. Below is an excerpt taken from a letter signed by 54 Republican lawmakers to Gov. Inslee, dated May 29, 2020, requesting a special session so we could work together:

Our state government works best when all branches work together. The legislative branch, as a whole, has remained on the sidelines while you exercised your emergency authority. It is time for that to change…  We want to work collaboratively with you and our majority colleagues in the Legislature to craft legislative solutions to help Washingtonians who are dealing with both the pandemic and economic desperation.”

We have asked for a more collaborative approach for a year, yet here we are – the session adjourned months ago, and we are still under one-person rule.

The governor was right to call an emergency last spring, and we agree with many of the decisions he has made through the process. However, what constitutes an emergency after 15 months? Shouldn’t lawmakers and the thousands of people they represent have more of a voice? Citizens deserve to have a stronger voice through those they elected to represent them.

This issue is not unique to Washington state. Legislatures across the country have passed laws aimed at increasing legislative oversight of governors’ emergency powers – both Republican and Democrat states. This is not a partisan issue. It is about checks and balances.

The Maine Policy Institute recently did a study on states and the terms of their governmental balance of power. Washington state ranks in the bottom four because we bestow on our governor the sole authority to determine when and where an emergency exists, and when an emergency ceases to exist.

All 147 lawmakers representing 49 very different districts deserve to be part of a collaborative process to share and reflect the interests of the citizens we represent, especially after 15 months of operating under the emergency declaration and proclamations. Complete indefinite control from one branch of government is not the way government was intended to function.

Rep. Keith Goehner, R-Dryden, represents the 12th Legislative District in the Washington State Legislature. He is the lead Republican on the House Local Government Committee and also serves on the House Environment and Energy and Transportation committees.


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