Commentary: Why the Fear About Discussing Limits on Emergency Orders?


The subject line of the email got straight to the point: “Jay Inslee is a tyrant to WA State and MUST BE stopped and removed!!!!!!!!”

That arrived in early June 2020, roughly a week after Gov. Jay Inslee announced a four-phase plan to reopen Washington’s economy. By then, our state had already been in a selective lockdown for two-plus months. People were feeling a range of emotions — fear, anger, frustration, desperation, outrage — about having their lives controlled and their livelihoods crushed by emergency proclamations.

While others also expressed strong feelings, most who reached out to me could not believe Washington’s governor has such unlimited power. Many had looked at the state law for themselves and were shocked to learn that the Legislature’s ability to “stop” the governor is limited. 

I understand their frustration. That’s because there are two kinds of proclamations the governor may issue using the powers granted during a state of emergency. Some proclamations suspend laws, like the order that allows for mail-in renewal of drivers’ licenses. They may be extended beyond an initial 30 days only with legislative approval. Unfortunately, state law prevents us from reviewing the other kind of proclamations, which prohibit activities until further notice — such as the outright ban on indoor social gatherings and indoor dining that still exists in 32 counties. Those proclamations also can be open-ended.

Each of the 50 states has a law granting emergency powers to its chief executive. Washington’s law, which dates back to 1969, gives our governor sole authority to determine when and where an emergency exists, and when an emergency ceases to exist. Only three other states give so much emergency power to their governor.

Now that the people of Washington know how those powers can affect their lives, I’m confident many would like to see action on bills introduced to change the law. There are political realities to consider, however — the Democrats controlling the Legislature aren’t likely to approve a change unless our Democrat governor consents. I believe it’s more reasonable to focus not on the law itself but the proclamations it authorizes. My bipartisan Senate Bill 5039 would simply make all of the governor’s emergency proclamations subject to legislative oversight after 30 days.

SB 5309 was referred to the Senate State Government and Elections Committee on Jan. 11, the first day of our annual session. The committee chair, Sen. Sam Hunt of Olympia, has ignored my request for a public hearing on the bill. The deadline for policy committees to move bills forward or let them “die” is Feb. 15, and I’m told my bill also isn’t on any committee agendas before then.

Here’s why the chilly reception for my legislation makes no sense. Amazingly, Washington legislators had no ability whatsoever to review emergency proclamations until two years ago. 

The bill that created the limited oversight we have today — which received near-unanimous support in the Legislature — was introduced by a former Republican senator. It was co-sponsored by none other than Sen. Sam Hunt, who now seems to have marked my SB 5039 for death. Go figure.

The legislative and executive branches are co-equal under Washington’s constitution. Why should the legislative branch be required to yield its authority to the executive branch especially in cases when lives and livelihoods are most affected? 

Also, the ability of Washington’s government to function in the event of an emergency has come a long way since 1969. Seeing how legislators can now meet virtually to make laws, there’s no justification for withholding the more sweeping emergency proclamations from our purview. 

At the rate things are going, the pandemic is sure to continue beyond our session’s scheduled April 25 end. 

If the state of emergency continues as well, the door will remain open to more proclamations of both kinds from the governor.

More than once this session I’ve heard the Senate majority leader say he wants to have discussions. 

I’m ready to make the case for SB 5039 — to discuss how it would fix the inequity in the emergency-powers law. Who could be afraid of that?


Sen. Lynda Wilson serves Washington’s 17th Legislative District and is Republican leader on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.