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Ohio Legislature Overrides DeWine's Veto On Public Health Order Bill

The Ohio Statehouse in downtown Columbus on March 26, 2020.
Ryan Hitchcock
/
WOSU
The Ohio Statehouse in downtown Columbus on March 26, 2020.

Ohio's Republican-dominated legislature has voted to override Gov. Mike DeWine's veto of a bill that allows lawmakers to overturn public health and emergency orders from the state and local health departments.

SB22, which DeWine criticized as unconstitutional, sets a 90-day limit on states of emergency and gives the Ohio General Assembly the power to revoke those after 30 days. It allows lawmakers to terminate any public health orders after 11 days through a resolution, which requires a simple majority vote.

The bill also bans local health departments from shutting down schools, specific businesses or public gatherings. Those restrictions were added into the House version to stop local entities from issuing orders the state couldn’t.

"SB 22 handcuffs Ohio’s ability to confront crises," DeWine wrote in a veto statement Tuesday. "The emergence of a yet unknown, epidemic illnesses bursting on the scene – just as COVID-19 did – remains a very real threat, as does the risk of state and non-state-sponsored terrorism."

In his veto message, DeWine took particular aim at the bill's prohibition on quarantine orders for people who haven't been "medically diagnosed," saying that leaders need to act quickly in a health crisis. He also told lawmakers that the bill would open up Ohio, its local health departments and colleges to lawsuits, and lead to courts making decisions on public health.

Less than a day after DeWine issued his veto, both the Ohio Senate and House went into session to consider an override vote, which requires a supermajority in each chamber. The Senate passed the override 23-10 while the House tally was 62-35.

Democrats in both chambers were united against the veto override. During debate, several lawmakers argued that restricting the governor's ability to act decisively – and undermining the guidance of health experts and scientists – is especially ill-timed as Ohio attempts to escape the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Instead of having debates about the facts, we're having debates about what even are facts," state Rep. Brigid Kelly (D-Cincinnati) said during the House's debate.

Drawing a scolding from House Speaker Bob Cupp, Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) criticized many of her colleagues for ignoring CDC guidance on face masks and other precautions, and argued that public health was not in their expertise.

"To drag citizens into this fight over egos is unacceptable," Sykes said. "To use false claims to do so is even worse."

Critics also agreed with DeWine's argument that SB22 violates the separation of powers.

"This body should not be in the business of passing laws that violate the Ohio Constitution," said state Rep. Richard Brown (D-Canal Winchester). 

Multiple Republicans defended the bill's constitutionality, citing precedent within Ohio law and listing over two dozen other states with similar bills on the books.

"There are over a dozen other examples of the legislature being able to overturn an action of the executive branch via concurrent resolution," argued state Sen. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon).

The bill's backers assert that it gives constituents a voice in making important decisions.

"This law provides the General Assembly the ability to consult with the department and experts before rescinding an order," Senate president Matt Huffman (R-Lima) wrote in a statement after the vote. "Senate Bill 22 represents a balance of power, not a battle for power."

Local public health officials, health systems and the Ohio Hospital Association opposed the bill, along with major physicians’ and nurses’ organizations, the Ohio Mayors Alliance, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio and the state's community colleges.

Dan Suffoletto speaks for Public Health Dayton and Montgomery County, one of nine agencies that held a news conference Tuesday urging lawmakers not to override DeWine's veto.

“During a public health emergency, you want people who are trained in public health managing the emergency," Suffoletto said. "Having untrained individuals making decisions during that emergency is not in the best interest of the citizens."

Erik Balster, Preble County health commissioner and president-elect of the Association of Ohio Health Commissioners, said he was surprised state lawmakers took this action.

"They all really endorse local control. Well, this totally eviscerates that," Balster says. "It takes the power of a local board of health from acting quickly, and I think it's counterintuitive and kind of naive to take that approach."

Wednesday's vote marks the first veto override of DeWine's governorship. DeWine's office did not indicate if they will sue to stop the bill from becoming law.

"Governor DeWine remains focused every single day on doing all he can to ensure every Ohioan who wants a COVID vaccine can get one in the coming weeks, which is truly what will help Ohio put this pandemic behind us," said spokesman Dan Tierney.

Copyright 2021 WOSU 89.7 NPR News.