Other Views: Inslee Should Expand His Bubble, Call Special Session of Washington Legislature


Pop quiz: Which Western Democrat governor this week called a special session of his state's Democratic-majority Legislature, saying "extraordinary times call for extraordinary action?" Who said his state can't wait two more months while a new wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc?

Answer: Not Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, despite prevailing economic and political winds that really ought to be blowing him in that direction.

It was Colorado Gov. Jared Polis who on Tuesday said he would summon legislators to Denver for a short special session in late November or early December. He wants them to take up a proposed $220 million stimulus package, throwing a lifeline to ailing bars, restaurants, tenants, landlords and students.

Inslee, for his part, has made a few overtures about possibly, maybe, but probably not calling a special session. Washington Republicans asked for one after the newly reelected governor announced he's again shutting down major parts of the economy, this time until at least mid-December, to stem the fast-rising viral tide.

In our view, Inslee should acquiesce to the request and expand his bubble of decision-making input. He should call lawmakers to Olympia to tackle a narrowly defined agenda on a short timeline.

Putting money in the pockets of the most hard-pressed Washington residents and small businesses is what matters right now.

More than 260 days have passed since Inslee first declared a COVID-19 emergency, and more than 250 days have passed since the Legislature last met. That's too long for one branch of government to be sidelined during an extended statewide crisis.

While we've supported Inslee's focus this year on saving lives and heeding public-health imperatives, we previously urged him to call a special session in August. Hearing the voices of elected officials from both parties, and regular citizens through public testimony, is long overdue.

Around 50 days remain before the opening gavel of the regular 2021 session. Some say waiting it out is better than convening a lame duck Legislature under difficult COVID-19 meeting conditions. Inslee says he and legislators will have much more information to work with in January, when he expects Congress and a Biden Administration will approve a massive, long-delayed federal stimulus package.

"I am talking to legislators and listening to their ideas," Inslee said at his Tuesday press conference. "At the moment there isn't a consensus in the Legislature about what could happen or should happen before January."

But he'll never know what consensus might form unless he calls them together. And with friendly Democratic majorities in both chambers, he doesn't have to worry about things spinning out of control.

Washington legislators have been on hiatus much longer than their counterparts in other Western Pact states, an alliance that Inslee joined to share best practices during the pandemic. The California Legislature met in fits and starts during the spring and summer, interrupted by COVID-19 infections in their ranks. Oregon pulled off a marathon one-day special session in August, plugging a budget hole and aiding out-of-work Oregonians despite ugly intraparty warfare in their ranks.

Now Colorado leaders have agreed not to let 2020 slip away without action. They've pledged a united effort to immediately help Coloradoans who are losing jobs, small businesses and life savings.

Inslee has also pledged to soften the latest economic blow through unilateral executive action, saying he'll distribute $50 million in previously approved federal aid. But Washingtonians would be well served with Democrats and Republicans at the bargaining table — a more constructive place for their voices to be heard than on social media.

"My colleagues and I found out about the Governor's intentions via twitter last night," House minority leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, tweeted Sunday, after Inslee announced new restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. "But we still want to help."

Wilcox and other leaders must agree to a tightly crafted agenda, nipping any detours in the bud. Limiting the scope of Inslee's emergency powers, for instance, is a non-starter and a fight for another day. But Republicans have an ear for small business needs and ideas that deserve discussion.

We should all hope and pray for a mother lode of good news in 2021: a productive legislative session, a congressional stimulus breakthrough and an effective, widely available coronavirus vaccine.

But first we need a bridge to get there, and more hands to build it.


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