House Joint Resolution 4200 is a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a supermajority vote of the state Legislature to attach a so-called "emergency clause" to a bill moving through the legislative process.
HJR 4200 is a solid reform proposal because too often in recent years lawmakers have attached such a clause to legislation that is not a true emergency. When they do, it has the effect of nullifying the right of citizens to repeal the law.
We support the passage of HJR 4200 because it will rein in the Legislature, restrict the use of emergency clauses to true emergencies and give voters additional opportunities to review, and if they deem necessary, repeal laws passed by the Legislature.
The founders of this state were populists who didn’t have a deep and abiding trust in government. For that reason they, and their successors, crafted a state constitution that puts limits on government and empowers the people to overturn laws they don’t like and enact laws that lawmakers refuse to pass.
The power of the people to petition for new laws (initiatives) and to reject bills passed by the Legislature (referendum) is an awesome tool.
Not surprisingly, lawmakers have found a way around these citizen rights. By adding an emergency clause to a bill, the citizens’ right to overturn it with a referendum is stripped away. A typical emergency clause says the new law must go into effect immediately because the legislation is “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its existing public institutions.”
In a 2005 ruling, the state Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in support of the Legislature’s right to attach emergency clauses to legislation.
Former Justice Richard Sanders rebuked the majority ruling saying, “Where the Legislature uses an emergency clause simply to avoid a referendum rather than respond in good faith to a true ‘emergency’ ... I find little left of the people’s right of referendum.”
He was right. Unfortunately the court ruling has led to repeated use of the emergency clause — thus putting new laws beyond the review of citizens.
What kind of “emergency” legislation have lawmakers passed over the years?
Remember controversial Senate Bill 6049 in 1995 that provided funding for the Mariners’ stadium in Seattle? That had an emergency clause. How about House Bill 2062, providing funding construction of a new NASCAR race track in 2007 or Senate Bill 5986 that same year that provided funding the Sonics’ basketball arena in Seattle? Neither of those bills passed, but they included emergency clauses.
Lawmakers don’t limit emergency clauses just to sports legislation. They’ve attached the measure to a bill requiring the use of apprentices on public work projects (2005); to suspend the two-thirds vote to pass tax increases (2005 and again last year); to create a state only death tax (2005) and to adopt California emission standards for motor vehicles (2005).
Should those bills — and many, many others — be put beyond the right of citizens to overturn the laws with a referendum? We don’t think so.
Between 1997 and 2009, there were 813 bills enacted with emergency clauses including 68 bills during the 2009 legislative session alone. In 2001 nearly one out of every four bills passed by the Legislature had an emergency clause attached. While Gov. Chris Gregoire has been inconsistent in her vetoes of emergency clauses, her rationale for vetoing them has been consistent:
“An emergency clause is used when immediate enactment of a bill is necessary to preserve the public peace, health, or safety or when it is necessary for the support of state government. It should be used sparingly because its application has the effect of limiting citizens’ right to referendum,” Gregoire said in a veto of House Bill 1000 in 2007.
This was her veto message on three other emergency clauses that year: “Emergency clauses should be used sparingly and only when necessary.” “Emergency clauses should be restricted to bills that address public emergencies.” And “We believe that the desire to avoid potential inconvenience should not be treated as a public emergency warranting an emergency clause.”
The governor is right. HJR 4200 proposes the enactment of a constitutional amendment authorizing passage of emergency clauses only if introduced via amendment and passed by at least 60 percent of the members of both houses of the Legislature.
That’s a rational solution to a practice that has gotten out of hand and restores the right of citizens to petition their government to overturn laws passed by the Legislature.