Shutdown raises concerns over government power

Shutdown raises concerns over government power
As a lawsuit against Governor Jay Inslee’s stay home order moves forward, some state lawmakers question the concept of “essential” and “nonessential” businesses. Photo; freepik.com

A Chelan County Superior Court judge this week ruled that a lawsuit against Governor Jay Inslee’s stay home order can move forward. The use of executive authority during the COVID-19 response to effectively shut down all businesses statewide deemed “nonessential” by Inslee is one of several public policies some state lawmakers want to address as Washington begins what could be a long recovery effort.

“Should we have shut everything down? I think that we will study this for decades,” Rep. Mike Chapman (D-24) said at a Washington Policy Center (WPC) June 3 virtual summit.

Chapman’s district consists of Olympic Peninsula counties such as Clallam, where the shutdown represents a tremendous setback for a local economy that last year had an unemployment rate of seven percent. As of April, the unemployment rate is around 19 percent.

“Instantly, we just took a 20-year step back on fighting opioid addiction, chronic unemployment and homelessness. (Now) it’s Great Depression-era unemployment,” Chapman said.

Rep. Alex Ybarra (R-13) said it’s a similar situation in his district, which covers several central and eastern Washington counties. Those deemed “essential businesses” such as the agricultural industry have had to balance maintaining a healthy workplace environment and housing conditions while ensuring the harvest is completed. Meanwhile, “nonessential” employers now reopening are fighting to “get back on their feet again,” Ybarra said. ‘It’s been a real struggle.”

Like legislators on the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council (ERFC), Chapman and Ybarra favor a special session to address the expected budget revenue shortfall. However, the state’s response to COVID-19 has raised questions regarding executive authority and agency oversight after a Nigeran scam ring initially managed to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from the state Employment Security Department (ESD).

“Somebody had better explain how my local small businesses couldn’t get on this federal program that they deserved…but we could pay the Nigerians,” Chapman said.

The shutdown has also promoted debate over the rationale for keeping big box retail stores open but forcing smaller stores to close. Chapman said the state needs to rethink the concept of “essential” activity during emergencies.

“Small businesses in the small towns that I represent were told” ‘you’re not essential,’” he said. “If you run a small business and you’re the primary bread winner, you’re pretty essential to your family. If we learned anything, let’s never use the term ‘essential’ business again.”

Another change recommended by WPC Small Business Center Director Mark Harmsworth is for the state to offer general guidelines, but overall “let some of these businesses do their jobs. These business owners are fully capable of understanding…what it means to keep their employee safe, what it means to keep their customer safe.”

Under Inslee’s new Safe Start plan, businesses that reopen can face a fine of $10,000 for violating new emergency rules, which Harmsworth said is “not going to be helpful. A lot of these businesses right now are teetering on profitability or not profitability.”

Certain businesses such as restaurants are even choosing to remain closed because the rules for reopening make it impossible to turn a profit, Chapman said. “There’s a fear many of them won’t come back.”

The ongoing lawsuit regarding Inslee’s stay home order reflects an anxiety also among legislators that the governor has so much power during a state of emergency. Ybara said: “I think he has too much control. I think that it needs some legislative oversight from the Senate and from the House. When he’s closing everybody down…I think that needs more than just the governor’s office making those major decisions. I think that those emergency rules were for Mount St. Helens going off or rockslides or floods….”

Chapman said: “Some more local authority would go a long way toward alleviating those concerns from the local citizenry.”

WPC hosts a webinar each Wednesday. 

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