For more than three months Oregon has largely been ruled by emergency executive orders in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
While we believe governors should have powers to deal with the exigencies associated with natural disasters and other emergencies, such as a pandemic, the measures undertaken using those powers should be limited in duration and subject to mandatory oversight by the Oregon Legislature before being extended.
The COVID-19 outbreak presented a clear and present danger as it unfolded in the early spring. Little was known about the disease when it arrived in the United States, but the catastrophic experiences of victims in other countries — China, Iran and Italy in particular — demonstrated the need for some action to curb infections.
Governors in all 50 states have exercised some emergency powers available to them to deal with catastrophic events — some more aggressively than others.
To her credit, Gov. Kate Brown has not been as heavy-handed as some of her colleagues. Nothing here is intended to be a criticism of her choices.
That said, she has at various times shut down large segments of the economy for undetermined lengths of time, closed private and public schools and colleges, forbidden indoor religious services and private gatherings, declared some businesses “essential” and others not, rewritten the terms of rental contracts, and restricted access to common health care procedures — all by decree and without the consent of the Legislature.
Two separate Oregon statutes give the governor the authority to declare emergencies and exercise broad powers. One specifically addresses public health emergencies, and the other is for general emergency situations. She has invoked both as authority for her executive orders.
The first statute imposes a 14-day limit on the declaration of a health emergency, the other imposes no limit. Although statute allows the Legislature to terminate an emergency declaration on its own authority, it does not require that the Legislature take an up or down vote.
The experience of the last few months demonstrates that those declarations should come with a statutory expiration date and a mandate for the Legislature to review actions taken under them, and to approve any necessary extensions. The response to the virus has cost half a million Oregonians their jobs, has destroyed thousands of businesses, cost the state millions in revenue and has changed nearly every aspect of public life.
All of these actions may well have been necessary, but none have been subjected to review by the people’s elected representatives.
The governor has called a special legislative session for Aug. 10. During that session, legislators should change the law. If they don’t, the people should add such a measure to the ballot.
Would any legislature override the actions of a governor in an emergency? That’s difficult to say. But an elected governor, even the most benign, should not be allowed to rule indefinitely by decree.