Washington State Legislators Abuse ‘Emergency Clause’ Budget Loophole

Published August 1, 2007

Horse race telecasts and a new name for a recreation committee were among 73 items declared legislative emergencies in Washington State as lawmakers continued their widespread use of the “emergency clause” to stop citizens from voting on legislation.

Attaching an emergency clause to a bill makes it go into effect immediately, preventing citizens from running a referendum to put the bill to a public vote.

The state constitution allows an emergency clause solely for laws “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, or support of the state government and its existing institutions.”

Questionable Emergencies

When the 2007 legislature closed its doors in late April, 73 bills–13 percent of all enacted legislation–were sent to the governor with an emergency clause. This included such measures as providing for horse race telecasts, new guidelines on genetic cross-breeding of seeds, and a new name for an outdoor recreation committee.

Lawmakers attached emergency clauses to six highly contentious bills. Those bills, dealing with major changes to health care, education, housing, and labor standards, were the type citizens often want to vote on through the referendum process.

That fact did not escape legislators. One of the bills was House Bill 2079, a hotly debated measure designed to shield the state teachers union from any ill effects of a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision on the forced collection of union dues. (See “Supreme Court Limits Unions’ Spending of Dues on Politics,” page 1.)

Impassioned Debate

The emergency clause on the bill garnered much attention from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. During floor debate, Sen. Don Benton (R-Vancouver), an opponent of the bill, called it “an outright abuse of the emergency clause statutes,” saying, “There is nothing in this bill that constitutes an emergency.”

One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent), retorted, “There is a bit of an emergency. We know of some labor organizations who have been legally harassed year after year … funded by some out-of-state deep pockets.”

To which Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch), a bill opponent, responded, “Any perceived intimidation or threats from one group to another is not a public emergency.”

No Fix

This isn’t the first year emergencies have been a dime a dozen in Washington. Thirty-six bills contained the clause last year, while in 2005 there were a staggering 98 emergency bills.

Twice citizens have asked the state Supreme Court to remove seemingly unnecessary emergency clauses to allow a referendum to proceed, once on funding for a new Seattle Mariners baseball stadium and once on a bill gutting a state spending cap passed by citizens’ initiative. Both times the court sided with legislators, deferring to their expansive definition of “emergency.”

Union Clout

This year Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) appeared to be using her veto power to send a message of restraint. She struck 10 emergency clauses, warning in one veto message, “the clause should be used sparingly because its application has the effect of limiting citizens’ right to referendum.”

Her message fell flat, however, with her refusal to veto the emergency clause on the union-backed H.B. 2079. Ignoring the requirement of a public emergency, she left the bill alone because the unions wanted it in effect immediately to protect them (a private entity) from pending or future legal action.

Several lawmakers are starting to take a stand against the attack on citizens’ referendum rights. Rep. Barbara Bailey (R-Oak Harbor) called on her fellow legislators to ask themselves, “Do so many legitimate emergencies exist? Or are lawmakers abusing this clause so they don’t have to be held accountable for the bills that pass from this chamber?”

Jonathan Bechtle ([email protected]) is director and legal analyst at the Citizenship and Governance Center of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington.