A bill that would have restricted the State Health Officer’s ability to issue health emergency rules failed on a procedural motion in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The House voted 54 to 44 to advance the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, to a floor vote. The bill needed about 60 votes to go to the floor. A vote tally was not immediately available early Wednesday afternoon.
The bill, a reaction to steps taken by the state in 2020 to try to bring the COVID pandemic under control, would have required the governor to approve any emergency health orders issued by the State Health Officer. The orders would not go into effect until filed with the Alabama Secretary of State.
“We are just adding a level of transparency and accountability in the reporting process there,” said Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville.
Business groups complained that measures taken by the governor and the public health office in April 2020 to combat the pandemic hurt businesses and in some cases drove firms to close. Those measures were largely lifted by May 2020, right before a surge in COVID cases that summer. But Ivey kept mask requirements in place until the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available in the spring of 2021.
More than 19,000 Alabamians have died from COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Orr’s bill drew criticism from House Democrats, who said it could bind the hands of the Department of Public Health in responding to crises like the COVID outbreak.
“I would not want to get into a position where there is a dire-need emergency that takes place in a particular area of the state, and the health officer can’t do anything until he goes through the political process,” said Rep. Sam Jones, D-Mobile, a former mayor of Mobile. “To me, that’s not making the process better. That’s making the process worse.”
Reynolds said the bill included provisions to allow the State Health Officer to issue rulings if there was an emergency and the governor was unable to respond. The bill includes language saying the State Health Officer may make “individualized directives to private citizens and businesses for violations of state law and rules adopted by the State Board of Health,” though it does not specifically mention emergency rules
Bills that would have required the Legislature to approve renewals of health care orders failed in the Legislature last year.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or [email protected].