ANNAPOLIS — Civil libertarians told a Senate panel Wednesday that they feared misuse of a bill designed to clarify the governor’s powers during outbreaks of bioterrorism-related diseases.
A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland asked the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee to consider the constitutional ramifications of the bill, which suspends individual rights by forcing vaccinations and testing.
The bill also lacks clear language for due process during a bioterrorist health crisis and standards for when a governor can exercise the office’s powers, said David Rocah of the ACLU.
“I don’t think the danger is a mad governor or an ill-intentioned governor” who may declare an emergency without sufficient reason, Rocah said. “The far greater danger is fear. We act out of good intention, but because of fear, we overreact.”
The bill — one of several proposals recommended by the Anti-Terrorism Task Force after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and the Pentagon — would authorize the governor to declare a catastrophic health emergency when lives are at imminent risk due to exposure to “deadly agents,” including anthrax, Ebola and smallpox.
Following Sept. 11, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office reviewed existing health safety laws and found that they didn’t clearly articulate the governor’s powers to deal with a biological attack, said Danna Kauffman, a representative of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Current laws also lacked clear authority for the secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to respond to an outbreak of biological diseases, and track an epidemic, Kauffman said.
“Existing law was written with snowstorms and riots in mind,” said Jack Schwartz of the State Attorney General’s Office. “The last thing you want in a crisis is for lawyers to sit down and decide what the governor can and cannot do.”
Under the bill, the secretary would be granted clearer and enhanced authority to quarantine infected people and take immediate treatment measures to contain the spread of a deadly disease. The secretary may also request certain information from local health care providers, and must establish a surveillance program to track people with certain illnesses or symptoms.
Referring to the broad powers of the governor and health department secretary, Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, also questioned the bill in several aspects, including providing monetary compensation for damages, the definition of a catastrophic emergency and the Legislature’s role in dealing with a bioterrorism-related crisis.
“As I read it, why couldn’t the governor declare (a catastrophic emergency) for tobacco smoke?” Harris said. “It could seriously cause damage and it’s deadly.”
Tobacco smoke does not fit into a very limited definition of what a catastrophic emergency is under the bill, responded Dr. Georges Benjamin, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The health department and the Glendening administration are aware of due process concerns and are willing to work them through, Kauffman said.
Suspension of civil rights weren’t the only concerns. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics supports the bill, it’s against a religious exemption allowing parents to deny vaccination or treatment for infected children, said Bobbi Seabolt, a lobbyist. However a representative of the Christian Scientists, Richard Price, said it has practitioners of that religion’s support.
The committee is also considering a bill dealing with agricultural outbreaks such as mad cow disease.
Under the bill, the secretary of Agriculture would gain clearer authority to obtain an search warrant to inspect farms for violations of animal health laws.
“It’s important to protect our farmers,” said Secretary Hagner Mister.
The bill would require the secretary to first try to gain voluntary access to a private property before a warrant is requested, Kauffman said, and the warrant would be limited in nature, scope and location to prevent abuses.