Let’s hope there is not a “next time,” but if there is, we absolutely cannot have an all-powerful executive branch of Alabama state government dictating the mechanics of a shutdown order.
They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.
We may never know if it was the right call or overreach for Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris to issue an order shutting down so-called “non-essential” businesses, followed by Gov. Kay Ivey issuing a stay-at-home order.
Three-and-a-half weeks into it, anti-shutdown movements have popped up. Gripes have come from Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth and state lawmakers about an unresponsive and, at times, arrogant governor’s office.
Sorry, a smile and an utterance of “we’re all in this together” is not sufficient.
There will be time to review what was done correctly and what was not.
However, the real failure of the system had little to do with the practicality and effectiveness of what state officials put into place. Instead, it was the absolute disregard for the democratic process, which was a structural failure of the pre-existing system.
When the Legislature gavels back, it will have to get into the game and reestablish itself as relevant to the process.
Let’s say there is a next time, and we have to halt the economy with another round of draconian measures. Will people be satisfied with, “We must listen to the expert?” That is if the expert is an unelected state health officer appointed by a board of unelected doctors?
For the sake of building confidence among the public, which would be essential for another shutdown done in the name of public safety, checks and balances should be implemented and the top-heavy approach should be decentralized.
The determinations of what, when, where, why and how could still be made by the governor and the state health officer — but there absolutely must be another layer.
Last year, when the Ivey administration deemed a $6 per vehicle toll bridge was coming whether the folks in southwestern Alabama wanted it or not, there was a similar spirit of pushback. Ivey’s bizarre response (before the rug got pulled out from under her) was to set a meeting of the little-known Alabama Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which was mostly a rubber-stamp board for the governor.
Given the extreme measure of forcing the public to cease regular economic activity, there has to be a check on this authority — why not a public health board made of members from both the executive and legislative branches of Alabama government?
Let’s start with the executive. Obviously, you would want the governor to be part of this body. The governor is the state’s top elected official.
However, the office of the governor is not thought to be all-powerful. Ivey is perhaps the most all-powerful governor in the post-George Wallace era in Alabama. It is not something, however, preferred by a conservative-voting state. But, for the sake of this effort, you still want the governor leading the way.
The lieutenant governor, which has mostly become a ceremonial position over the last decade, would be a member of this board. Given the lieutenant governor is elected statewide and is next in line to be governor should the governor falter (as we have seen one too many times in Alabama), it makes sense to include the lieutenant governor.
If we are to consider the legal ramifications, you would want to include the state attorney general. In some circumstances where there is no law, an attorney general opinion can serve as guidance until the Legislature has an opportunity to consider whatever is in question.
As for the legislative side of it, given the ramifications on Alabama’s economic activity and by extension the revenues that fund the state government, it would seem appropriate to offer more seats on the board to legislators, three members from each chamber. From the House of Representatives, the Speaker, the chairman of the education trust fund and the chairman of the general fund. From the Senate, the President Pro-Tem and also the education trust fund and general fund chairs.
The way it would work is the board itself would not author the emergency order. That would still fall under the governor and the state health officer.
In the event of another pandemic this quadrennium, Ivey and Harris would submit a proposal to this board of elected officials. Immediately, a meeting of the public health board would convene, with Ivey chairing it. But it would include Ainsworth, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, Senate President Pro-Tem “Del” Marsh, House General Fund chairman Rep. Steve Clouse, House Education Budget Committee chairman Rep. Bill Poole, Senate General Fund chairman Sen. Greg Albritton and Senate Education Budget Committee chairman Sen. Arthur Orr.
Should a simple majority of the nine-member panel approve the measure, then it goes into effect. At any time, the governor could call the board to meet again, should conditions change and the government response needs to be altered.
It would not be perfect. Decry the possibility of politics entering an emergency, but we need politics involved. The political process is what keeps the government accountable and functioning.
Currently, we have one elected official and another unelected health officer making a subjective determination in the name of public safety.
That top-heavy system is not fitting of a state with Republicans holding statewide offices from top to bottom and supermajorities in the Legislature.
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