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Washington Senate OKs bill on governor's emergency powers

A view of the Senate chambers from a balcony. There are desks in rows and marbled walls.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Legislators work on the Washington Senate floor at the Capitol in Olympia on Feb. 15 during debate over a measure that authorizes legislative leaders to terminate any state of emergency called by the governor after 90 days if the Legislature is not in session. The measure passed the Democratic-led Senate chamber and now heads to the House, also held by Democrats, for consideration.

Nearly two years after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Washington Senate on Tuesday approved a measure that authorizes legislative leaders to terminate an emergency after 90 days if the Legislature is not in session.

The measure passed the Democratic-led chamber on a 29-20 vote and now heads to the House, also held by Democrats, for consideration.

Democratic Sen. Emily Randall, the bill’s sponsor, said that there is “room for improvement in our checks and balances of government, especially in times of emergency.”

“This bill is not about one mandate or one governor, it’s about a system with adequate checks and balances,” she said during debate.

The Legislature has no authority to terminate a declared state of emergency, but the four legislative leaders can choose not to extend some emergency orders by the governor — things like waiving rules on in-person public records reviews or allowing the transfer or discharge of nursing home residents to other long-term care facilities — after 30 days. Legislative leaders have extended the vast majority of those type of orders since the pandemic started.

The bill approved by the Senate allows the majority and minority leaders of each chamber to terminate a state of emergency in writing after 90 days if the Legislature is not in session.

It also allows majority and minority leaders — when the Legislature is not in session — to terminate in writing an order or orders issued by the governor that prohibits activities.

All four leaders would need to agree for either a state of emergency or emergency orders to be rescinded.

The biggest complaints from Republicans, the minority party in both chambers, have stemmed from the broader powers the governor has used during the pandemic, which has included limits on gatherings, vaccination requirements for state and health care workers and a statewide indoor mask mandate.

Republicans argued that the underlying bill doesn't do much, and unsuccessfully sought two floor amendments, including one that would have orders issued by the governor prohibiting certain activities expire after 90 days unless at least three of the four legislative leaders extended them.

“This bill does not fix the problem,” Republican Sen. John Braun said. “It allows the majority to do exactly what has been done for two years, which is nothing.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than two dozen states have bills pending that look for direct legislative involvement in or oversight of certain gubernatorial or executive actions during emergencies, with many of them bills that are carried over from last year.

Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Inslee, questioned the necessity of the bill and said in an email that “the vote did not change in any way the governor’s emergency orders.”

“We look forward to moving to the next phase in our COVID response,” Faulk wrote. “The governor’s office will of course review the legislation to assure there are no issues in the language that would unnecessarily inhibit actions by future governors.”

Rachel La Corte covers politics and the Washington state Legislature for The Associated Press.
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