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Senate passes bill curtailing powers of health officer, governor

The Senate voted 24 to 8 to approve the bill, which now heads to the Alabama House.

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, left, and Gov. Kay Ivey, right, at a COVID-19 press conference.

The Alabama Senate approved a bill Thursday that would curtail some of the powers of the governor and state health officer in addressing public emergencies. 

Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, introduced Senate Bill 97, which requires the governor to approve any state health emergency declared by the state health officer.

Under current law, the governor can issue a 60-day state of emergency, which can be extended by the governor or the state Legislature indefinitely. Whatley’s bill would reduce the 60-day time limit to 45 days, and wouldn’t allow the governor to issue a public health emergency declaration that extends beyond 120 days without joint Legislative approval. 

The bill carves out the ability of the governor to extend emergencies due to storms and weather events beyond 120 days without Legislative approval, however. 

“The state health officer is not an elected individual, and this puts the power back in the governor’s hands,” Whatley said during the debate prior to the vote. 

“I don’t think the health officer came out with one, not one order without the governor approving it,” said Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.

Singleton noted the bill’s exception for weather events and explained that makes clear to him the bill is really a reaction to Gov. Kay Ivey’s business closures, imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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“I’ve seen too many people die,” Singleton said of COVID-19, noting many were younger with other health conditions. “I’m sure you have people in your community that you know that have died. You probably have friends of friends, families members who have died from this deadly disease, and we need to make sure that we’re doing the right thing.” 

The Senate voted 24-8 to approve the bill, which now heads to the Alabama House.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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