Sen. Shelly Short says number one priority of legislative session is to curb Inslee's emergency powers

RaeLynn Ricarte

Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said the number one priority of a bipartisan group of legislators in the 2021 session that began Monday is to curb the emergency powers of Gov. Jay Inslee.

“This should be done right away,” she said. “People like checks and balances and our governor is out of control.”

Although Democrats have solid majorities in both the House and Senate and will set the agenda for the 105-day session, Short said there seems to be genuine interest in both parties to define the authority of the governor during a crisis. It has been almost a year since Inslee declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and he continues to unilaterally set the rules for how businesses can operate and citizens can live, she said.

“The legislators were voted in by the people to represent their interests and that has not been possible for almost a year,” said Short, who was among GOP lawmakers calling for a special session last summer to define the scope of Inslee’s authority. “By not allowing us to speak for the people in our districts, they haven’t had a voice.”

She believes that, 30 days after an emergency declaration, the governor should have to confer with the legislature to decide a course of action. If that had been done, Short said balanced decisions could have been made about how to protect vulnerable populations from spread of the virus without driving small businesses into bankruptcy.

“I am concerned about the public health, we all are, but you can’t live in a glass bubble,” she said.

Short said Inslee’s new Roadmap to Recovery, which took effect on Monday, continues to put small businesses in jeopardy and many cannot make it through many more weeks of operational restrictions and shutdowns. It does not help the situation any, she said, to have Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties lumped into the same region for phased reopening with Spokane County, which has the second biggest city in Washington and, therefore, more COVID-19 cases.

“Our case count in smaller communities is much lower than Spokane’s and these decisions need to be made based on what is going on in each county and not collectively,” she said.
Under Inslee’s Healthy Washington plan, all regions start in Phase 1 and reopening of their economies will be determined by four healthcare metrics:

• A 10% decrease in infections for 14 days;

• A 10% decrease in hospitalization rates;

• ICU capacity below 90% (including COVID and non-COVID patients); and

• Infection test positivity rate below 10%.

The metrics of each region will be monitored weekly with any changes taking effect the following Monday. When a region is allowed by the state Department of Health to move to Phase Two, restaurants can reopen indoor dining and indoor fitness centers can operate at 25% capacity. Sports competitions can resume with limited spectators and wedding and funeral ceremonies can increase their capacities.

Inslee said regions can move backward if two or more of the metrics turn the other way. Each region’s metrics will be evaluated on Fridays and any movement forward or back will take place on Mondays. Meanwhile, retail, barber shops and salons remain at 25% indoor capacity statewide and restaurants can only offer outdoor dining or take-out and delivery services. Indoor gatherings with people outside your household are prohibited unless participants have quarantined for at least a week and tested negative for the virus.

Funerals and weddings are limited to 30 people and receptions following the ceremonies are not allowed.

Inslee is now allowing fitness centers to provide appointment-based training with no more than one athlete within 500 square feet of another. Outdoor entertainment is allowed but events can involve no more than 10 people of no more than two households. Short said the “very real concerns” of the Washington Hospitality Association and other business representatives need to be given consideration.

Anthony Anton, chief executive officer of the association that advocates for hotels and restaurants in the state, said of Inslee’s latest plan: “It is a road-ma to a near-complete collapse of main street neighborhood restaurants and hospitality businesses.”

He said the hospitality sector accounted for nearly one in eight jobless claims since March 2020. During the first round of layoffs, Anton said the hospitality industry lost 191,000 jobs and were still around 90,000 in November when Inslee invoked another shutdown. Short said small businesses have no certainty that they won’t continue to “yo-yo” between opening and closing down under Inslee’s new plan. The dire situation has created such great stress that there has been a spike in suicide rates and mental health issues that also need to be factored into reopening plans, she said.

“The legislature needs to find a way to help protect vulnerable populations from spread of the virus that also gets people back to work and helps small businesses survive,” she said. “We need to allow job creators to reopen their doors and look at ways to protect people in long-term care facilities and others who are most at-risk.”

On Jan. 11, lawmakers gathered in the capital to approve rules that allow them to conduct business remotely, said Short. She serves as Minority Senate Leader so will be on the floor every day. However, there are 98-members of the House and 49 members of the Senate who will mostly participate in policy making via Zoom meetings and not in person. She believes taxpayers need to be able to look their elected officials in the eyes when they are testifying about potential laws, but that will not be possible because the Capitol building and legislative offices are closed to the public.

“It’s not fair to the people who are going to be taxed. It’s not fair to the people who are going to be regulated,” said Short. “It’s easier not to pay attention to what someone is saying if you don’t have to look them in the eye, so I see a lot less public participation in these remote meetings.”

She said revenue has been better than expected in the last year so the forecast multi-billion budget deficit is not going to be a worry. However, she said even with a 7% to 10% anticipated increase in revenue, Inslee has proposed a spending plan that takes the current two-year budget of $52 billion to $57.6 billion, an increase of more than 10%.

Short believes the state should use some of the extra revenue to build up the unemployment fund, which would take a burden off businesses. Republicans do not support new taxes on citizens or businesses to pay for Inslee’s added spending proposals, but they are in the minority and the Democratic majority is feeling emboldened by election results, said Short.
In November, Democratic leaders urged members of the House and Senate to limit the number of bills they introduce because of the complications of legislating during a pandemic. Democrats announced they will focus on four priority areas: racial equity, COVID-19 response, economic recovery and global climate change. Once again this year, Inslee and state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, a Democrat who chairs the House environment committee, plan to push for a so-called “clean fuels” standard similar to what British Columbia, Oregon and California have already adopted.

Under the proposal, the carbon intensity of fuel sold in Washington would have to be reduced by 10 percent by 2028 and 20 percent by 2035. Democrats contend the standard is necessary because transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in Washington. Republicans argue that the governor’s proposal will unnecessarily increase the price of fuel.
Inslee also plans to push for passage of what he’s calling the state’s Climate Commitment Act. That legislation would cap greenhouse gas emissions and create a carbon credits market.

Money raised from the sale of the credits would go to fund climate resilience and environmental justice programs. Inslee also wants to establish an Office of Independent Investigations to investigate allegations of police excessive force. Bills are being proposed to ban chokeholds and neck restraints, the use of tear gas and prohibit the use of unleashed police dogs to arrest or apprehend someone, among other measures to regulate law enforcement activities. Lawmakers may also consider whether to restrict the open-carry of firearms at the Capitol and revisit whether to abolish the death penalty.

“I know that Reps. [Joel] Kretz and [Jacquelin] Maycumber and I are going to fight to make the minority voice heard if they do not give us the right to have our say,” said Short.

Kretz and Maycumber are also Republicans who represent the 7th Legislative District, which encompasses Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, as well as the northern edge of Spokane County. Maycumber is House Minority Floor Leader and Kretz is Deputy Leader, so they are all in positions of leadership, which gives them a certain amount of influence, said Short.

“I don’t give up but I think the hurdles are here and it’s going to be a tough session,” she said. “It’s not going to be easy but there is strength in standing together. We are going to do the best we can.”