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Senator bringing back bill to change state emergency order extensions

A bill that would allow the Alabama Legislature a say in extending state emergency orders, like the ones put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, will be refiled in the 2021 legislative session.

Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, said he plans on again introducing a bill that would limit state emergency orders to 14 days and require legislative approval for extensions.

“I think we need it to be democratic process instead of a one-man show and a one-man ultimatum,” Whatley said.

Currently, state law says the governor can declare a state of emergency for up to 60 days. A series of public health orders from the state health officer and emergency orders from the governor began in March in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The current order, which requires everyone to wear a face covering in public spaces, expires Dec. 11.

Whatley’s proposed bill says that if the Legislature is not in session, an extension can be approved by a joint proclamation by the Senate president pro tem and the speaker of the House.

The same bill was proposed this year but wasn’t considered due to the pandemic-shortened legislative session.

Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, said he plans to support the bill again because it offers more checks and balances to the emergency order process while still ensuring help gets to Alabamians in an efficient manner.

“There are safeguards in place where it wouldn’t just be an end date specified but there would be some oversight to it by a different branch of government other than just the executive branch,” Barfoot said.

Whatley’s bill also requires the governor and secretary of state to sign off on any state health order from the state health officer.

Whatley says since governors are elected officials, unlike state health officers, they are beholden to the public.

“I just think we need to have a process of how they go into place,” Whatley said. “No matter what they are, no matter how restrictive they are, or non-restrictive they are, they need to have a place where the public is involved and has some recourse in the matter.”

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 the leadership of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, the professional association of physicians.

Many state lawmakers have come out against the statewide mask mandate and have urged Gov. Kay Ivey not to close businesses as she did earlier this year with the stay-at-home order, but Ivey has given no signal that she would install such an order again.

Whatley said this bill is not a criticism of any of the current emergency or health orders in place.

“This bill doesn’t have anything to do with one particular personality or person,” Whatley said. “This bill has to do with basic rights of democracy and the people of Alabama.”

Ivey press secretary Gina Maiola said Ivey did not have an opinion on the bill so far.

“As with any piece of legislation, we will watch the process play out, offer input if needed and review any bill that reaches the governor’s desk,” Maiola said.

Ivey will have to sign off on the bill if it passes the Legislature.

The 2021 regular legislative session is scheduled to begin Feb. 2.

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