Other Views: It's Time for Washington Legislature to Check Gov. Inslee's Pandemic Superpowers


Much of Western Washington had reason to rejoice Thursday when Gov. Jay Inslee modified his COVID-19 restrictions and allowed seven counties, including Pierce, to move to Phase 2 in his revised reopening plan.

Restaurants, gyms and museums can resume indoor activity at 25-percent capacity. High school athletes can return to the field. People will start to emerge from their winter funk like Punxsutawney Phil from his groundhog burrow. And Inslee will deservedly win brownie points for flexible pandemic leadership.

Even so, as our state nears the one-year anniversary of Inslee's first coronavirus emergency declaration on Feb. 29, Washingtonians shouldn't lose sight of the extraordinary power that remains entrenched in the executive branch.

The Legislature now has a chance to balance the scales, at least somewhat. For the next three months, Washington's 49 senators and 98 representatives can reassert their status as a co-equal branch of government, no longer sidelined by a governor who wouldn't call a special session as the public-health crisis dragged on last year.

They owe it to voters and the constitution to uphold the separation of powers. Both chambers are controlled by Inslee's fellow Democrats, however, so it's unclear how far they're willing to go — and how much backbone they're willing to show.

One litmus test: Legislation that would put time limits on Inslee's emergency restrictions. A 30-day cap is proposed, though there's nothing magic about that number.

The debate isn't unique to Washington; about half the states are going through it right now.

The Republican-sponsored bills, while far from perfect, reflect a growing impatience among pandemic-weary Washingtonians who elected legislators to represent them, not just a governor.

Democratic leaders should pick one or two of these bills and schedule them for public hearings.

If they don't want to hear it from us, then perhaps they'll listen to one of their most seasoned veterans: Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma.

Kirby, a 20-year House member, went out on a limb by co-sponsoring a pair of bills, the only Democrat to do so.

House Bill 1020 would limit all the governor's emergency orders to 30 days unless extended by the Legislature or by unanimous consent of caucus leaders when the Legislature isn't in session. House Bill 1004 would put similar limits on Health Department orders.

As chair of the House Consumer Protection and Business Committee, Kirby says he hears often from struggling businesses. He also gets an earful from struggling constituents in his low-income district centered in South Tacoma.

"I'm just concerned that the governor has been relying on career public-sector employees for advice," Kirby told the TNT editorial page editor Wednesday. "Contrary to the governor's slogan, we're not all in this together. It's really easy for people with six-figure incomes who are still working to impose restrictions on those who aren't so fortunate."

Ironically, Kirby doesn't fully support the two bills with his name on them; he says they contain "poison pills," such as the unanimous-consent provision. But he sees them as a starting point for discussions, a way to leverage regular collaboration between the executive and legislative branches during a pandemic with no end in sight.

To be clear, Kirby knows Inslee has a difficult job and can't please everyone. "I genuinely appreciate the governor's efforts to keep the people of Washington safe."

Those efforts have yielded success compared to the rest of the country. Washington ranks among the best five states as measured by confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, and the best 10 states in the number of deaths per 100,000.

But they come at a cost. Washington has the sixth-most stringent coronavirus rules, according to a new analysis by the personal finance website WalletHub, and has only gotten stricter, climbing 10 spots since October.

For most of 2020, Inslee was free to unilaterally renew emergency orders after legislators went home in March. He declined several pleas, including from this Editorial Board, to convene a special session.

He recently extended 26 emergency proclamations, covering everything from childcare centers to nursing homes, from shuttered college campuses to closed government meetings. Some orders curtail in-person contact in order to slow viral spread; others provide relief from fees, penalties and other obligations.

There's a glimmer of good news here: The Legislature reviewed the orders in the first days of the 2021 session and voted to extend them. It was mostly a rubber-stamp exercise, but at least Republicans were able to speak out against the Legislature abdicating authority to the governor.

But public hearings? There were none. Time limits on the orders? Nope. Majority Democrats voted to extend them indefinitely; that means if the pandemic drags past April, Inslee will again be free to act with little or no legislative oversight, until the day he declares the emergency over.

We hope Democratic leaders listen to Steve Kirby and take steps to ensure power-sharing with the executive branch.

Or heed the words of our state namesake, President George Washington, who fiercely defended the separation of powers in his farewell address. "To preserve them," he said, "must be as necessary as to institute them."


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