The Legislature is now in session, meaning our break from politics was too short — and it didn’t take long for Gov. Jay Inslee’s use of his emergency powers to be called into question.
Do we really want the decision between opening and closing businesses and schools, or who should wear masks, left to political debate between partisan officeholders who might be up for election?
We are not alone. In about half the states, the governors’ use of emergency powers are being challenged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In most states, the challenge is coming from Republican legislators who want to have the governors’ emergency powers end after 30 days unless extended by the state Legislature. They would also like to limit the governors’ authority to close schools and businesses.
Most states are following a model written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that favors limited government. However, some state Legislatures only meet every other year, and others, like ours, only meet for a few weeks each year. We alternate between a long session in odd-numbered years and a short session in even-numbered years. That’s because having all the lobbyists in Olympia is a great way to update your mailing lists for fundraising after the session. In even-numbered years, everyone wants to get out of Olympia to campaign.
Inslee has received some criticism for his use of his emergency powers and for not calling a special session to seek input from the Legislature.
When COVID-19 started, no one knew what it was, how it got here or how long it would last. Inslee’s priorities were following scientific advice and saving lives. He tried to make the topic as non-political as possible by not calling a special session, though I suspect he did consult with Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. Inslee has been around for a while and he knows strange unexpected things can happen when the Legislature is in session. The fact that his decisions were brought up so early in the session is illustrative of how quickly everything can become political.
Also, Inslee doesn’t want to create a political stage for his political opponents. And this wasn’t really about the governor’s authority anyway — it was about setting up elections for 2022 and 2024, with Republicans maneuvering to get vulnerable Democratic House members on the record on some topics. If the situations were reversed, the Democrats would be doing the same thing.
It wasn’t just the opposing party that was critical of the governor. Inslee supported Democrat Ingrid Anderson in a 5th Legislative District primary battle with Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Mullet. Mullet won, then teamed with Lynda Wilson, a Republican from the 17th Legislative District, on a bill that would require gubernatorial emergency orders to get legislative approval in 30 days, including closure of businesses. Politics are frequently behind most decisions, but Inslee actually did what most of us would like to think we would have done if we were in the same position — relying on medical and scientific experts.
Inslee also held press conferences almost every day to make sure the public knew how and why he was making the decisions he was making. Do we really want the Legislature debating what doctors or scientific experts “meant” or “said” as part of the political debate? Inslee did show flexibility in working with businesses and has been open to suggestions from school district superintendents.
In an example from another state, the Idaho Legislature wants to strip Gov. Brad Little’s authority to stop citizens from going to work. The way the question is asked sometimes can change the answer. With what we know now, that debate might have cost us many more lives. Protecting individual rights are important, but the greater good is in protecting as many of our citizens as we can. Some people think wearing a mask isn’t manly. But should their right to individual expression jeopardize others?
In addition to the Mullet-Wilson bill, there was another one for the Washington State Department of Health, which also had a 30-day requirement. But to reduce the political stagecraft and avoid something unexpected happening, no public hearings were scheduled, and Democratic legislative leaders voted to extend the bills indefinitely. When the Legislature leaves town in April, Gov. Inslee’s powers will still be in place.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact email@example.com.