Denying the People’s Right of Referendum - Emergency clause again used to protect controversial bills

by Jonathan Bechtle

February 7, 2007

In the past, the legislature has used emergency clauses to avoid public votes on controversial bills, and this year is no exception. This week lawmakers attached emergency clauses to a bill that would fund a NASCAR racetrack in Kitsap County and a bill that would circumvent a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision on teachers’ constitutional rights. Too bad if citizens don’t agree with the measures; if passed, the attached emergency clauses preclude a referendum vote.

An emergency clause serves two purposes: 1) bills adopted take effect immediately, and 2) the people are denied their right of referendum due to the purported emergency addressed by the bill. Because Article 2, Section 1 of the Washington Constitution grants the people the power of referendum, denial of this constitutional right must be severely limited.

In fact, the legislature is provided an exemption from a people 's referendum only if the bill adopted is "necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its existing public institutions." The use of this exemption must be limited in order to meet the requirements of Article 1, Section 1, which states: "All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights."

House Bill 2062, the NASCAR track funding measure, is a perfect example of how the emergency clause is used to deny this constitutional right. Attempts to spend public funds on sports facilities like Qwest Field, the Kingdome, Key Arena, Safeco Field, and a new home for the Sonics have been hotly debated. Just last year the International Speedway Corporation tried to obtain $179 million in taxpayer dollars to fund a NASCAR track, but couldn’t gain a sponsor in the legislature. HB 2062 represents a second attempt. Calling the bill “necessary for the immediate preservation of peace…or public institutions” is simply absurd and is an attempt to protect a bill that would otherwise likely face a referendum.

Constitutional amendment necessary to protect the people’s right
A possible reform to protect the right of referendum is found in House Joint Resolution 4218, which would amend the state constitution to require a super majority vote of legislators in order to attach an emergency clause to a bill.

It should not be difficult to muster a super majority in support of a bill that addresses a true emergency, so this change would not be a burden on legislators. Similar reforms introduced last year, however, failed to even receive the courtesy of a public hearing. This year the Democratic leadership should demonstrate their commitment to upholding the constitutional right of referendum by moving forward with emergency clause reform.

Jonathan Bechtle serves as director of Evergreen Freedom Foundation’s Citizenship and Governance Center. For more information, visit



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