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January 29, 2013 at 6:53 AM

The Washington Legislature considers the emergency clause

A committee of the Washington Legislature has heard a bill that addresses a standing scandal in Olympia: abuse of the emergency clause.

An emergency clause is a statement that a piece of legislation is “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety [or] support of the state government and its existing public institutions.” You wouldn’t think building a baseball stadium, for example, was necessary “to preserve the public peace, health or safety,” but in the mid-1990s the Legislature said the Safeco Field was. This was challenged in a lawsuit and went to the Washington Supreme Court. In Clean v. State (1996) Chief Justice Gerry Alexander ruled that there was “a clear and present danger” (dumbing down a famous phrase) that the Mariners would leave town unless the stadium were built. Alexander said money and “recreational opportunities” would be lost if the Mariners left Seattle, and that “quick action was needed.” If the Legislature said a baseball stadium was necessary “for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety,” well, then it was.

Under Article II, Section I-b of the Washington Constitution, an emergency clause is the only exception to the right of referendum, which allows voters to veto a law by collecting signatures and putting it on the ballot. That was the point of the putting an emergency clause in the stadium law: not to allow a public vote on the stadium. There already had been a public vote among the people of King County—they voted no, narrowly—and the promoters didn’t want a statewide vote on it.

Since Clean v. State, the Legislature has been free to put an emergency clause on just about anything without worry that a court will strike it down. Since 1997, 15 percent of the enacted bills have had emergency clauses. According to Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center, 954 bills that passed into law were officially deemed “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety [or] support of the state government and its existing public institutions.”

That’s too many emergencies. Far too many.

The resolution heard in committee today, Senate Joint Resolution 8206, would allow an emergency clause only as an amendment to a bill, so that it would have to be voted on separately from the bill itself, and only with the support of 60 percent of both houses. Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said she sponsored the constitutional amendment for years in the House of Representatives but never could get a hearing. With the Senate under control of the conservative-moderate coalition, she got her hearing in the Senate Committee on Governmental Operations, chaired by Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn.

The amendment would be unnecessary if the Washington Supreme Court had done its job. But the Court didn’t, and the amendment is. Unfortunately, it probably won’t get anywhere. Legislators don’t like to limit their own authority.

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