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Bill would change state of emergency, public health order rules

MONTGOMERY — Some state senators want more say in extended emergency orders like the ones put in place in response to the coronavirus.

Current law says the Alabama governor can issue a state of emergency for up to 60 days. A bill filed Monday in the Statehouse would limit that to 14 days and then require legislative approval for an extension.

Senate Bill 334 also says that no public health order issued by the state health officer will take effect until it is signed by the governor and delivered to the secretary of state. Current orders, like the late March order that closed many Alabama businesses and limited public gatherings, are signed by State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris alone.

Harris, 54, had a private practice in  Decatur for 20 years, and for 13 of those years he was director of the Community Free Clinic of Decatur-Morgan County.

In mid-March, in response to the first reported cases in Alabama from COVID-19, Gov. Kay Ivey issued a state of public health emergency.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and has several co-sponsors, including Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

“It brings the legislative body into the picture, and also makes the governor put his or her signature on the line with the state health officer, because the governor is a state elected person, the state health officer is not, so this way it holds the elected officials accountable to the people and holds these orders accountable,” Whatley said.

Whatley said the bill is not a criticism of Harris.

“It’s a way for the people to hold the person accountable for who’s making these decisions,” Whatley said. “Right now, it’s being made by one doctor, and I know Gov. Ivey can say whatever she wants about being a part of the process, but it’s Dr. Harris’ name that’s on that state of emergency form.”

Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, is another co-sponsor. He said until COVID-19, most Alabamians, and some lawmakers, would have been hard pressed to recognize the state health officer’s name.

“It’s turned into a very high-profile position,” McClendon said.

The state health officer for decades has been selected by the State Committee of Public Health. That committee, by state law, is largely made up of leadership of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, the professional association of physicians in the state.

“Right now, the public health officer is hired and fired by (the medical association),” McClendon said. “None of those people are accountable to the public.”

Legislation is possible in the next regular session to change how the health officer is selected, McClendon, chair of the Senate Healthcare Committee, said.

Whatley’s bill was filed Monday and sent to the Senate Committee on Government Affairs. As of early Tuesday, that committee had no meetings scheduled.

If the bill gets through the Legislature in its current shortened session, it would need Ivey’s signature.

“Dr. Harris serves the state with integrity and provides the governor with the best information possible so that she can can make the decisions on behalf of the people of Alabama,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said. “With any legislation, we will watch the process play out, and if needed, the governor will offer her input before a bill reaches her desk.

“However, when legislative leadership informed the governor that they were resuming session amidst a health crisis, they assured her that they would only be addressing budgets and local bills, and that is what Gov. Ivey looks forward to reviewing.”

Whatley said if the bill doesn’t pass this session, it will likely be refiled in the next regular session.

Other co-sponsors are Sens. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, Greg Albritton, R-Range, Jack Williams, R-Mobile, and Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope.

Elliott has been an advocate for reopening Alabama businesses, particularly small business, shuttered by public health orders.

“There have clearly been some instances where there have been some overreach here,” Elliott said. “We have some constituents who think we need to look at the broad powers of governor and state health officer.”

A mid-March health order closed public and private beaches in Elliott’s district.

“Nowhere else in the state did we close property to the person who owns it,” he said.

Elliott said SB334 is about checks and balances.

“These laws have been around a long time and periodically need review,” he said.

Though he’s not a co-sponsor, Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, is a proponent of the bill.

“I think (Harris is) doing the job that the law mandates he does, but that’s looking through it as a health care professional, and from that standpoint, I think he’s done an adequate job for what he’s been tasked to do. But there’s another element here and that’s the economy of the state and how it affects our citizens,” Barfoot said. “This would simply allow the Legislature to have a process to have a say so in any of those orders that affect the daily lives of the citizens of Alabama.”

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