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Measures aiming to limit executive powers die in legislature

by Patric Haerle, WNPA News Service
| February 26, 2021 1:52 PM

It’s been nearly a year since Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic, and during that time calls for a special legislative session and cries of executive overreach went unheeded.

A special session was never called, and emergency orders were extended, allowing Inslee, a Democrat, to continue to direct the state's coronavirus response.

When a regular session of the legislature began in January, Republicans responded with a flurry of bills to limit executive power in emergencies.

All of those bills in Olympia are now dead, dying without a single floor vote.

The bills attempted to limit the scope of executive declarations, require state emergencies to be defined more specifically and require input from the Legislature after a set number of days.

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, the prime sponsor of House Bill 1029, the only one of these bills that was heard in committee, is confident the state’s coronavirus response would have been better with legislative input.

“Anytime that an executive consults with the legislative branch regularly, the end product in terms of policy is superior,” Walsh said.

The Governor's Office, however, does not view the Republican complaints of executive overreach as legitimate.

“The legislation was misguided as it focused on the governor’s appropriate use of the office’s emergency powers and not on the real source of people’s frustration, the pandemic,” the Governor’s Office said in a statement. “We look forward to continued discussions with those who have serious ideas for how to improve the state’s COVID response.”

Some Republicans view the governor’s actions as a potential constitutional crisis.

“It's not about the current governor. It's not about the current legislative majorities in my mind. This is a constitutional issue, and we need to restore constitutional balance between the branches. And I will run this bill or something very much like it until we get it into law as policy,” Walsh said.

At the public hearing for HB 1029, the bill drew support from outside the state.

Nick Murray, a policy analyst with Maine Policy Center, a nonpartisan institute based in Portland, Maine, advocated for a consistent process, with the executive branch presenting its findings to the legislature, submitting to questioning and receiving a favorable vote to have an emergency extended.

The center recently released a report scoring all 50 states on the concentration of executive powers during emergencies. The report ranked Washington near the bottom of governor-legislator balance, with only two states ranking lower.

The ranking does not take into account recent emergency orders, only the existing laws governors are required to follow when issuing emergencies.

“The constitutional principles of separation of powers and co-equal branches of government are simply too valuable to be cast aside, even in an emergency,” Murray said.