Emergency powers bill scheduled for Senate public hearing

Jan 19, 2022

The Senate State Government & Elections has scheduled a public hearing on January 28 for SB 5909 (Concerning legislative oversight of gubernatorial powers concerning emergency proclamations and unanticipated receipts). SB 5909 is sponsored by Senate Democratic Majority Whip Emily Randall. Sen. Randall said about the bill in a press release:

“The pandemic made it clear – to my neighbors and to Washingtonians in every corner of our state – that our current system of government gives a lot of power to one person in the executive branch in times of emergency. And if the Legislature isn’t in session during a declared emergency, there is no opportunity for legislators to make sure the concerns and priorities of our communities are a part of the decision-making process.

Emergencies affect whole communities and, in the case of this pandemic, this emergency has affected our entire state. We will recover better together, more equitably and more quickly, when a body of duly elected legislators acting in direct service of our communities can be a part of that recovery. Right now, during interim, it’s up to one person: the governor. This bill aims to fix that.”

Along with addressing the concerns about unanticipated receipts, SB 5909 would set up a process for legislative leadership to vote to end an emergency proclamation if it has been in place for more than 90 days when the legislature is out of session. This is a different reform approach than proposed by the bipartisan SB 5039 and HB 1772. Under those proposals, an emergency proclamation would automatically expire unless the legislature voted to continue it after either 30 or 60 days (regardless of whether in session or not).

Here is a snapshot of the different emergency powers reform bills: 

  • SB 5039 - Emergency powers automatically end after 30 days unless vote to continue.
  • HB 1772 - Emergency powers automatically end after 60 days unless vote to continue.
  • SB 5909 - Emergency powers remain in effect unless after 90 days (when not in session) vote to end.

By virtue of SB 5909’s very broad bill title, a robust legislative emergency powers debate will now be possible with all reform options on the table via the amendment process.

One alternative are the policies proposed in HB 1772. Among the bipartisan co-sponsors of HB 1772 is Democratic Rep. Mike Chapman. Rep. Chapman was one of the panelists on January 6th at Washington Policy Center’s Solution Summit discussion of emergency powers reform. He told me after the panel:

“The reason I co-sponsored HB 1772 is that whether one agrees with the Governor's emergency powers decisions or not we still need three effective co-equal branches of Government with appropriate checks and balances.”

Another option in the Senate is the reform proposed by the bipartisan SB 5039. SB 5039 would subject all of the governor’s emergency orders to legislative oversight after 30 days. This is the type of reasonable time limit and legislative public accountability for emergency powers that exists in many other states across the country.

When the Senate State Government & Elections held a work session on emergency powers last November, I encouraged the committee to reform the state’s emergency powers in a way that is very similar to what is proposed by SB 5039. My recommendation is to make this amendment to RCW 43.06.220 (4):

"No emergency order issued by the Governor may continue for longer than 30 days unless extended by the legislature through concurrent resolution. If the legislature is not in session, the emergency order may be extended in writing by the leadership of the senate and the house of representatives for 30 days or until the legislature can extend the emergency order by concurrent resolution. For purposes of this section, 'leadership of the senate and the house of representatives' means the majority and minority leaders of the senate and the speaker and the minority leader of the house of representatives. An emergency order narrowly written solely to qualify for federal funds is exempt from the requirement to receive legislative extension."

This reform would ensure that every emergency order by the Governor is subject to at least some type of legislative oversight after 30 days while maintaining the flexibility to issue very narrow orders to receive federal relief funds.

Long lasting emergency orders should receive the input of 147 legislators from across the state following a public process, allowing the perfection of policies through a collaborative weighing of all the options, alternatives and tradeoffs. This is precisely why the people’s legislative branch of government exists, to deliberate and provide guidance to the executive branch on what policies should be in place and how to implement them.

Our system is not meant to be the arbitrary rule of one behind closed doors. It is past time for the legislature to restore balance and provide full public oversight of these immense executive powers it has created.

Now that SB 5909 has been scheduled for a public hearing, Washingtonians will have the opportunity to weigh in on their preferred emergency powers reform (here is the link to sign up and provide remote testimony).

Additional Information
Why Washington State Needs Emergency Powers Reform (video)
“Seeking balance” on emergency powers
Senate holds emergency powers work session
Rep. Walen says lawmakers should not abdicate their responsibility to govern


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