Research & Commentary: Washington State Proposes Commonsense Restrictions to Unilateral Gubernatorial Power During States of Emergency

Published February 1, 2022

The Washington State Senate Committee on State Government & Elections will be holding a hearing on Senate Bill 5909, legislation intended to create legislative oversight of gubernatorial powers concerning emergency proclamations.

During the pandemic, many Americans saw their respective governors wield unprecedented power with seemingly unlimited emergency declarations. This overnight shift in governance, coupled with a plethora of governors who abused their pandemic emergency powers, has left several states reevaluating the statutes in their constitutions pertaining to emergency provisions and powers granted to the governor during a state of emergency. With SB 5909, Washington is no exception.

Senate Bill 5909 stipulates that if the legislature is not in session and it has been more than 90 days since the state of emergency was declared by the governor, termination of the state of emergency can be issued in writing by all four members of the leadership of the Senate and House of Representatives.

This amendment to the current Washington emergency proclamation statute is paramount as we saw governors excessively extend their state of emergency timelines. Specifically, Washington’s COVID-19 state of emergency is just about one month short of its two-year anniversary.

Allowing the legislative branch of Washington oversight of the process of emergency proclamations and emergency powers affords constituents a voice pertaining to mandates that deeply affect their lives. After all, elected senators and representatives are how citizens make their voices heard and concerns known. Excluding the legislature is no different from excluding citizens.

Further, SB 5909 would create new state codes that would implement procedures within the legislature and Washington state government regarding the proper allocation of federal and nonstate fiscal resources. With federal COVID-19 relief packages such as the $2.2 trillion CARES Act or the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, states received hefty subsidies from Uncle Sam for the purpose of offsetting the economic turmoil associated with government-mandated lockdowns.

If passed, Senate Bill 5909 would create a joint select committee to be known as the joint legislative unanticipated revenue oversight committee. The committee would consist of the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, the speaker and the minority leader of the House of Representatives, six additional members of the Senate with three members from each of the two largest caucuses of the senate, and six additional members of the House of Representatives with three members from each of the two largest caucuses of the House of Representatives.

The purpose of this committee is to review requests for proposed allotment amendments to spend unanticipated and unbudgeted funds received by the state from federal and nonstate sources. Further, the committee would provide oversight of its decision to the governor while the legislature is not in session to prevent infringement on the legislature’s constitutional power to appropriate state funds.

The concept SB 5909 was created under isn’t complicated: it restores the authority of the legislature as a co-equal branch of government. It is as it was designed to be.

Throughout 2020, The Heartland Institute developed a set of principles that legislators could reference when governors began abusing their newfound powers. The decision by Pennsylvania voters to rein in Gov. Wolf’s executive emergency powers is in line with Heartland’s principles, which include:

  1. Resolutions to immediately nullify an emergency proclamation.
  2. Time duration of an emergency order (renewed by legislature).
  3. Pass a resolution that requires the governor to call a special session to approve of an emergency proclamation if the legislature is out of session.
  4. Permit an interim committee, or group of legislative leaders, to extend or reject emergency proclamations.
  5. Impose specific limits to executive authority during an emergency proclamation. (i.e., restrict the governor from unilaterally closing businesses, closing houses of worship, etc.)

There is a clear appetite among the lawmakers in Washington to restrain Gov. Inslee’s emergency powers while ensuring safeguards to prevent future gubernatorial tyranny under the guise of emergency declarations. Coequal governance, checks and balances, and the decentralization of power are bedrock American principles. Yet, these fundamental principles have been AWOL in Washington since the pandemic. Inslee’s power-hungry policies, unchecked by the legislature and courts, have led to substantial negative socioeconomic effects for the people of Washington.

Fortunately for the cause of freedom, Washington lawmakers are standing up to their out-of-control governor by reasserting their rightful place as a much-needed check against the executive branch.


The following documents provide more information about executive authority in a state of emergency.


Testimony Before The Georgia House Committee on Judiciary, Scoggins Subcommittee, On House Bill 358, Restoring The State Legislature’s Role In Emergency Management 

Testimony Before the Georgia House Judiciary Committee regarding legislative and executive authority in a state of emergency.

Andrew Cuomo Is Just a Governor, Not a God

Cuomo has issued multiple statements in an attempt to quell the backlash and frustration of New Yorkers and lawmakers in Albany to no avail.

Governors, Not Gods – A Heartland Institute Webinar

The Heartland Institute hosted a webinar on Aug. 27, 2020 for state legislators to discuss how they can rein in governors, who wield seemingly unlimited powers in the wake of COVID-19. For many months, Americans have been abhorred by out-of-control governors who have imposed draconian lockdowns, which have decimated small businesses and people’s livelihoods. For instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been roundly criticized for his heavy-handed and ineffectual response to the coronavirus outbreak in New York, which has drawn substantial blowback. Cuomo has also attempted to coverup his disastrous policy of forcing elderly patients with COVID-19 to return to nursing homes, where they spread the deadly diseases like wildfire among New York’s most vulnerable. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures dip lower, now is the time to begin exploring oversight over dictatorial governors and restore power where it rightfully belongs: With we the people, not I the governor.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Heartland’s Government Relations department, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.