An attempt by a group of Republican senators to limit Alabama’s governor and state health officer’s authority to issue unilateral health orders has fallen short during an abbreviated legislative session.
However, one local lawmaker says the issue isn’t going away anytime soon.
Last week, as hundreds of Alabama businesses were still forced to keep their doors closed under statewide orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, legislators met for an abbreviated session. Leaders in both chambers said they would focus solely on state budgets, school bonds and local legislation.
While those are ultimately the only items that made it through successfully, a handful of other bills were introduced in the Senate, including one co-sponsored by State Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope. As it was written, Senate Bill 334 would have given the Legislature a more prominent role in sustaining future state of emergency declarations and required more oversight of orders from the state health officer.
“I didn’t ever really see it moving this session, but this is just the beginning,” Elliott said. “There needs to be some additional oversight of the carte blanche authority the state health officer has right now, and we clearly need to look at just how long the governor can issue these states of emergency.”
The bill comes in the heels of weeks of statewide health mandates that followed Gov. Kay Ivey’s original emergency declaration in mid-March. Those orders — issued under the authority of State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris — closed all non-essential and close-contact businesses for more than a month, prohibited in-house dining in restaurants and banned all non-work-related gatherings of 10 or more.
Some of those restrictions have been rolled back over the past two weeks, but they were politically divisive when in effect because of their impact on the state’s economy and concerns they raised about government overreach. However, under state law, Harris has the power to issue those orders and Ivey has the power to extend states of emergency every 60 days whether the Legislature approves or not.
Senate Bill 334, the cosponsors of which included Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, aimed to change that by adding in language to existing law that would automatically end any state of emergency after 14 days unless it’s extended by the Legislature or a joint resolution of the president pro tem and speaker of the House. It would have also required orders from the state health officer to be signed by the governor.
After failing to make any progress this past week, it’s likely similar legislation won’t be considered again until 2021 at the earliest. Lawmakers are expected to return in the fall, but Ivey has the sole authority to call for a special legislative session as well as the power to set what matters are to be considered.
So far, the governor’s office hasn’t taken a firm position for or against the proposals in the bill. Asked last week, a spokesperson said legislators needed to stick to the issues they returned to Montgomery in the middle of an ongoing pandemic to address — state budgets, school construction bonds and local bills.
Speaking with Lagniappe, Ivey’s press secretary Gina Maiola defended Harris’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, saying he had “served the state of Alabama with the highest integrity” and “provided the governor with the best information possible” during an unprecedented public health emergency.
To be clear, Elliott said the now-dead bill he signed onto wasn’t a rebuke of any decision state leaders have made over the past several weeks. He said it was a natural response to legislators seeing in practice how much authority the state health officer and governor are given during a public health emergency.
“This isn’t about whether the right decisions have been made,” he said. “This is about how long this has gone on and that has gone on against the recommendations of the lieutenant governor, members of Alabama’s federal congressional delegation and the governor’s own coronavirus task force.”
Some detractors of the recent statewide health orders have called for reforms to the process over similar concerns about the power it gives the state health officer — an unelected official appointed by a group primarily composed of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama’s Board of Censors.
Elliott said he respects Harris’s position, but doesn’t believe someone who isn’t elected by the people should have the authority to unilaterally close businesses, churches and beaches. He suggested public health officials can sometimes fail to weigh health decisions against broader public policy concerns.
The bill saw some pushback from Democrats that characterized it as a power grab that, were it to pass, would politicize public health decisions in the future. Elliott said he could understand those concerns, but also said he’s heard from multiple constituents concerned about the state’s response to COVID-19.
At the end of the day, Elliott said he’s in “the business of public feedback.”
“The purpose of the Legislature is to represent the people, and I think that’s an important thing to remember,” he said. “The bill we proposed continues to maintain deference to the governor’s office for a period of time but then allows for a period of legislative review. A lot of this legislation hasn’t been reviewed for years, and it’s being revisited for the first time now because we’re seeing it in practice.”
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