Bill establishing special session procedure clears Senate

Bill establishing special session procedure clears Senate

As Governor Jay Inslee’s state of emergency approaches its one-year anniversary, efforts to either curb the executive branch’s authority or greater empower the legislature have struggled to garner support. However, one bill that’s gained traction would set up specific rules for how the legislature might convene itself under the state constitution.

SB 5196 sponsored by Sen. Andy Billig (D-3) cleared the Senate in a 43-5 vote on Feb. 24 and specifies the procedures for how the legislature can call itself into a special session.

  Speaking to colleagues prior to the floor vote, Billig said “in some ways this is a small housekeeping bill, but in other ways it’s quite important. The Washington state constitution gives the legislature the right to call itself into special session in accordance with the rules we set by law or by resolution, and that’s what this bill does.”

Even though the legislature has never called itself into special session, Billig said “just the right to do so is important for that balance of power between the branches. This bill will help to maintain that balance of power.”

Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) said the bill “helps in clarifying the process by which we, the legislature, can assert our legislative authority.”

Under SB 5196, a resolution with the date, time, and purpose for a special session may be introduced in either the House or Senate and would then be referred to that chamber’s Rules Committee. The resolution must then be approved by a majority vote before it could advance to the full chamber for a vote.

State law currently requires that a supermajority – or two-thirds vote – is needed for the resolution to pass.  SJR 8201 sponsored by Republican Deputy Floor Leader Chris Gildon (R-25) would allow the legislature to call itself into a special session with a three-fifths vote, but that proposal failed to receive a public hearing after its referral to the State Government & Elections Committee.

Despite the overwhelming support for SB 5196, some offered tempered enthusiasm. Senate Minority Leader John Braun (R-20) said it’s a “good bill (that) clarifies the process. I want to be clear that the constitution is what gives us the right to do this. We’ve always had the right. But there’s nothing wrong with being clear and creating a process to do so, so there’s no question.”

However, he added that “while this is good and I’m happy to support it…it does not substitute for other things we’ve learned during this pandemic regarding executive powers reform.” Braun was the sponsor of SB 5114, which would have allowed businesses in Washington to reopen under Phase 2 of Inslee’s Road to Recovery plan. The bill failed to clear the Senate Committee on State Government & Elections after a Jan. 20 public hearing.

In the House, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-19) sponsored HB 1029 curtailing the executive’s state of emergency powers. The bill has yet to clear the House Committee on State Government & Tribal Relations after a Feb. 6 public hearing. Washington is considered to have among the worst laws in the nation insofar as balance of power is concerned. Existing state law allows the governor to unilaterally call a state of emergency and decide when that emergency is over.

Among the handful of senators opposed to SB 5196 was Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-41), who told colleagues he was against having resolutions sent to the Rules Committees. “Having served in both the House and Senate on Rules Committees, I am greatly concerned.” He added that too often Rules Committees are where bills are sent to die, “not to advance. Rules Committee is often referred to as the Death Committee. To me, this seems like a throttling back of our ability to be able to call ourselves into special session.”

However, Sen. Marko Liias (D-21) said “bills come out of that committee every day. This bill made its way out of the committee.”

 SB 5196 has been referred to the State Government & Tribal Relations Committee.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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