WA Constitutional Amendment on Ballot for Continuity of Government

An amendment to the Washington State constitution will be on the ballot this November to expand government powers in the case of catastrophic incidents. Voters will have the opportunity to either approve or reject the proposed amendment. The measure was passed because of concerns with the effects of a Cascadian Subduction Zone (CSZ) large earthquake and the ability of the government to legally respond. The text of the amendment is as follows, modifying Section 42, Article II (Underlined text is added in the amendment. Strikethrough text is deleted.):

The legislature, in order to insure continuity of state and local governmental operations in periods of emergency resulting from a catastrophic incident or enemy attack, shall have the power and the duty, immediately upon and after adoption of this amendment, to enact legislation providing for prompt and temporary succession to the powers and duties of public offices of whatever nature and whether filled by election or appointment, the incumbents and legal successors of which may become unavailable for carrying on the powers and duties of such offices; the legislature shall likewise enact such other measures as may be necessary and proper for insuring the continuity of governmental operations during such emergencies. Legislation enacted under the powers conferred by this amendment shall in all respects conform to the remainder of the Constitution: Provided, That if, in the judgment of the legislature at the time of ((disaster)) the emergency, conformance to the provisions of the Constitution would be impracticable or would admit of undue delay, such legislation may depart during the period of emergency caused by a catastrophic incident or enemy attack only, from the following sections of the Constitution:

-Article 14, Sections 1 and 2, Seat of Government;
-Article 2, Sections 8, 15 (Amendments 13 and 32), and 22, Membership, Quorum of Legislature and Passage of Bills;
-Article 3, Section 10 (Amendment 6), Succession to Governorship: Provided, That the legislature shall not depart from Section 10, Article III, as amended by Amendment 6, of the state Constitution relating to the Governor’s office so long as any successor therein named is available and capable of assuming the powers and duties of such office as therein prescribed;
-Article 3, Section 13, Vacancies in State Offices;
-Article 11, Section 6, Vacancies in County Offices;
-Article 11, Section 2, Seat of County Government;
-Article 3, Section 24, State Records.

From the Spokesman-Review:

Washington voters worried about “The Big One” – a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered by a geologic fault off the Pacific Coast – might have a special reason to mark their ballot in the November election.

A constitutional amendment was proposed with just such a catastrophe in mind. But opponents say the powers the amendment would give the Legislature are too broad, and the definition of a catastrophic incident that could allow such changes is too vague.

Senate Joint Resolution 8200 sailed through the Legislature as a 21st-century update to a constitutional amendment enacted during the Cold War.

As currently written, that section of the constitution provides for “continuity of governmental operations in periods of emergency resulting from enemy attack.” If a simple majority of voters approve Resolution 8200 on Nov. 5, the section will be broadened so that continuity is ensured not only in case of attack but also in case of “catastrophic incidents.”

Under the existing law, which voters approved in 1962, the Legislature would have the power to move the state capital or a county seat, make changes to the requirements to elect or appoint legislators, pass bills and fill vacancies in state or county offices in the aftermath of an attack. The Legislature could also fill an open governor’s seat if all people in the line of succession set out in the state constitution are unavailable.

In the 2019 session, legislators were more worried about shaking earth and crushing waves than falling bombs, prompting them to add the “catastrophic incidents” clause.

“The catastrophic incident we anticipate will be the big earthquake that will do such damage that we will need to have procedures in place to have government continue operating,” Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said in introducing the bill to the House last April.

“It’s about The Big One, the earthquake,” Rep. Bill Jenkin, R-Prosser, said. “We know this will be the next disaster.”

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, a major geologic fault line off the Pacific Coast that stretches from Vancouver Island to northern California, has the potential for creating a massive earthquake that could decimate Western Washington and generate a tsunami that would inundate coastal communities.

The quakes occur on an average of 300 to 500 years, with the last one recorded in 1700. The Washington National Guard and the state Emergency Management Division have already mapped out and practiced for responding to a massive quake.

But the amendment doesn’t limit the expanded powers of the Legislature to a quake-induced disaster, nor does it define “catastrophic incident” or how extensive it would have to be, opponents say.

“You would have to trust government to make these decisions with or without your input,” warns the argument against the amendment, co-authored by Rep. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley. “We should demand a better proposal with clear definitions.”

State statutes do define “catastrophic incident.” It can cover any natural or human-caused event– including terrorism and an enemy attack – with mass casualties, high levels of damage or disruption.

At the same time the Legislature passed the proposed amendment, it also approved a bill that clarifies a governor’s power to suspend certain laws and regulations in a declared emergency for as long 30 days – or more if the Legislature is in session and agrees. If the Legislature is out of session, its leaders can extend that time limit until lawmakers return to session.

Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, argued that was still too broad, and with the potential for problems.

“It could be used by an unscrupulous governor – not saying that we have one,” Hasegawa said. “We have to be careful.”