MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama Senate committee on Wednesday advanced bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a proposal to limit the power of the state health officer and another to extend liability in virus-related lawsuits.
The Senate Judiciary committee voted 7-4 to approve a bill by Republican Sen. Tom Whatley of Auburn that would give elected politicians oversight of emergency decisions currently made by the state health officer.
The proposal would require the state governor to approve the state health officer’s emergency health orders during a pandemic. It also would require legislative approval to extend an emergency declaration beyond 14 days.
“It still maintains emergency powers in emergency situations for the governor. It just transfers the authority for making those decisions from an unelected person to a person elected by the people of Alabama,” Whatley said.
Whatley said he did not bring the bill in response to any particular actions by State Health Officer Scott Harris, but said there should be a “check and balance.”
Democratic Sen. Vivian Davis Figures of Mobile said lawmakers should not interject themselves when “dealing with life and death situations.”
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey expressed skepticism about the bill on Wednesday.
“I don’t know that we need to limit the hands of decision makers, especially when they’re guided by health people trying to give us good advice too,” Ivey told reporters. “We’ll just have to see where that goes.”
Committee members voted 9-2 to advance a bill to shield companies and others from lawsuits during the pandemic. The bill by Republican Sen. Arthur Orr could provide immunity for businesses, health care providers and others from certain damages claimed by individuals who allege that they contracted or were exposed to the virus.
Orr said the bill would give protection to companies, churches and other entities from virus-related claims only if they were following appropriate precautions.
“A business that chose to ignore that guidance and did not require, say like masks in their workplace or took no steps to try to limit the interaction of their workers being very close together then they would not have protection in that safe harbor,” Orr said.
The governor and GOP leadership have said the bill is a priority and it could receive a floor vote as soon as Thursday.
Opponents said they were concerned the bill would give companies too much protection for risky practices. Robyn Hyden of Alabama Arise, an advocacy group for low-income people, urged lawmakers to take more steps to protect workers.
“Front-line workers deserve access to health care, hazard pay and social support programs if they are unable to work in a high-risk field. Too many workers are being driven into risky working conditions with no alternatives,” Hyden said.
The Senate committee also advanced medical marijuana legislation by an 8-3 vote.
The bill by Republican Sen. Tim Melson would allow people with a qualifying medical condition to purchase marijuana, in forms such as gels or tablets, for medical use from licensed dispensaries. The bill cleared the Senate last year with a 22-10 vote but did not get debated in the House of Representative.
This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Robyn Hyden's first name.