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Constitutional amendment would give Washington lawmakers more power after catastrophe

Voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that could allow the government to appoint officials or change the state capitol after a devastating earthquake.

SEATTLE — Should the Washington state Legislature be allowed additional powers when the big one hits? A constitutional amendment that’s on the November ballot seeks to do just that.

The amendment alters an existing provision in the state Constitution that allows the government certain powers should we experience an “enemy attack.” New language would allow the government to utilize those powers after “a catastrophic incident,” such as a magnitude 9 earthquake.

“We are not prepared to function as a government if the earthquake wreaks the kind of damage that we are expecting, and we need to have that government continuity provision in place in the law in order for us to be prepared,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, who sponsored the House version of the resolution.

That magnitude 9 earthquake could come from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which is a fault that runs off the coast from Cape Mendocino, Calif. to British Columbia. It produces megathrust earthquakes about every 300-600 years; the last time it went off was in 1700. An earthquake of that magnitude could cause 8,500 deaths in Washington, more than 12,000 injuries, and more than 500,000 buildings to be destroyed or damaged.

RELATED: Why you should be prepared: 3 big earthquake threats in PNW

The Legislature passed Senate Joint Resolution 8200 back in the spring, but it requires voter approval before it goes into effect.

Under the amendment the government could do three things at the state and local levels in a catastrophe: change the state capitol if it isn’t feasible to meet in Olympia; appoint legislative positions, such as governor, if there’s a death or vacancy; and pass legislation to keep the government running.

The original provision was created in 1962 during the Cold War era, although Washington has never actually had to use it.

Washington could be one of the first states with a provision like this for natural disasters. However, Goodman said the resolution has attracted attention from several other states, such as Maryland, which is looking at adding similar language for flooding.

Opponents of the measure have criticized it for failing to define catastrophic, claiming it’s too broad and could be used in a variety of circumstances. Goodman said the provision would only kick in with certain gubernatorial emergency declarations, such as a level one declaration that calls for global mobilization.

The duration of additional government powers would be determined by how long the catastrophe lasts.

RELATED: How to prepare for a major Pacific Northwest disaster

However, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, was concerned the measure could potentially curb constitutional rights by increasing legislative power during a disaster.

He argued there are already adequate provisions for the Legislature to take care of business after a major disaster without amending the constitution. For example, Orcutt hoped the Legislature would focus thing things like providing funding to impacted communities or expediting permitting for rebuilding infrastructure.

“People should be very, very careful about giving up any constitutional protection, because it’s extremely hard to get it back,” Orcutt said.

However, Goodman hoped people would have a level of trust in their elected officials to use the measure responsibly.

“Nobody will have time to exert extraordinary powers when we’re all trying to survive at that point,” Goodman said.