Opinion: Governor’s powers must be reined in before Legislature finishes session

Rep. Vicki Kraft would like to see legislators have input into the decisions Gov. Inslee continues to make during the COVID-19 pandemic

It was March 23, 2020 that Gov. Jay Inslee first issued his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. For one year, Washington’s governor has single-handedly ruled the citizens of the state under emergency powers and proclamations.

Rep. Vicki Kraft would like to see legislators have input into the decisions Gov. Inslee continues to make during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Vicki Kraft

For an entire year, the governor has dictated which businesses can remain open and which must be closed. Gov. Inslee has told us who is essential in the workplace and who is not. He has decided if, when and where people can attend church, a wedding, or a funeral. He prevented family members from visiting their elderly parents in assisted care. Until recently, he prevented children from returning to school, creating a system which has impacted young people’s mental health and led to many students in Washington failing their online classes.

He has issued his edicts from inside a locked Capitol building, later fenced and protected by the National Guard.

Because the Legislature had already adjourned the 2020 session on March 12 last year, legislators were not in session as the governor issued extensions every 30 days of his emergency orders.

It makes sense to allow the governor the ability to quickly respond to an emergency for a limited time, such as an earthquake, or when Mt. St. Helens erupted, or when wildfires consumed entire Eastern Washington communities. However, nearly a year of power to set state policies without the involvement of the people’s representatives is not the way our government is supposed to work. Our Constitution is very clear about this.

At the end of March last year, I was the first legislator to suggest the governor call a special session to allow elected lawmakers to address the needs of our citizens and businesses across the state suffering from the pandemic. My Republican colleagues later joined me in that request. Under our state Constitution, only the governor or two-thirds of the Legislature can call a special session.

The governor not only dismissed our special session requests, he ignored more than 30 letters from legislative Republicans, advocating for the rights of Washingtonians.

I am among several Republicans who authored legislation to rein in the governor’s powers and return government back to the people. House Bill 1381 would limit the governor’s emergency powers to 14 days after a state of emergency proclamation, unless extended by the Legislature from a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. If the Legislature is not in session, a special session could be called to extend the state of emergency proclamation.

Unfortunately, majority Democrats in the Legislature seem to have no interest in these measures. They have refused to advance any bills to limit the governor’s powers, including mine.

Let’s also be clear — I don’t dispute the need for the governor to act during an emergency to save lives. What I dispute is the ability of the governor to single-handedly decide how this should be accomplished for an entire year or more, without listening to the people of our state and the lawmakers they elect to represent them.

Less than a month remains of the 2021 session. I am concerned that if no action is taken, we will be back as we were last year, with the governor ruling the state as a single entity. This is NOT right!

I’ve written a letter to members of the Legislature to join me in requesting the Senate and House majority and minority leaders prioritize action by the Legislature, before we adjourn, to end the governor’s COVID-19 emergency powers. We have three branches of government with equal, but separate powers. We don’t have a king. Our government was created to prevent one branch from single-handedly deciding what’s best for the state. We cannot let this session end and allow our governor to continue his one-man rule.

Last year, in Wisconsin when Gov. Tony Evers issued stay-at-home orders, Republicans sued the governor, challenging his orders, and won. I recommended this step last year. If this session ends without reining in Gov. Inslee’s powers, we must take action and do the same.

There clearly is no emergency at hand. As legislators, it’s our duty to restore the balance of powers before the Legislature adjourns April 25. We need to act NOW and put our state government back into the hands of the people where it belongs!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, is serving her third term representing the 17th District, which includes East Vancouver and Central Clark County.