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Ohio Legislature Passes Bill To Limit Governor's Public Health Orders

A closed sign is posted at Pins Mechanical duckpin bowling alley and bar in downtown Columbus in March 2020.
Karen Kasler
/
Ohio Public Radio
A closed sign is posted at Pins Mechanical duckpin bowling alley and bar in downtown Columbus in March 2020.

One year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio House and Senate have passed a bill that would limit states of emergency issued by the governor and allow legislators to rescind health orders.

SB22 passed the Ohio House on Wednesday afternoon by a margin of 57-37. As expected, the Ohio Senate quickly voted to approve the bill changes, 25-8.

SB22 now heads to the desk of Gov. Mike DeWine, who said he will veto.

The bill would make a state of emergency issued by the governor expire after 90 days. The Ohio General Assembly would be able to revoke that state of emergency after being in effect for 30 days. Health orders created under that state of emergency could be rescinded by the legislature after 11 days.

If a state of emergency expires or is terminated, the governor would not be able to reissue a similar state of emergency for 60 days. In that time, it would be up to legislators to decide if continuing the state of emergency is necessary.

Republicans including state Rep. Scott Wiggam (R-Wayne Co.) argues that SB22 allows legislators to represent their constituents in the decision-making process, especially in controversial decisions like last year's "stay at home" order.

"If you believe in checks and balances and transparency, this bill is for you," Wiggam said on the House floor Wednesday. "This bill is about empowering people, it's empowering parents, empowering small businesses, empowering Ohioans. It's about ensuring that they have a voice in their futures."

State Rep. Beth Liston (D-Dublin), who opposed SB22, says the state needs to rely on science in making public health decisions.

"Experts from around the world came together to come up with mitigation efforts and prevent spread, while others researched vaccines that appear to be on the verge of containing the pandemic," Liston said. "Much like we've done with measles, small pox, polio, just to name a few. Now is not the time to change course, allowing politics to override experts."

Supporters say that Ohio's restrictions are hurting small businesses and quality of life. They also say the benchmark DeWine has set to lift health orders – an infection rate of 50 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over two weeks – is unachievable. 

State Rep. Marilyn John (R-Shelby) says COVID-19 hospitalizations are dropping in her district and around the state, and that businesses can't wait for the state to reach DeWine's goal.

"The governor has said that we are open, but you can't have lunch on a Monday afternoon because the restrictions will not allow the restaurants to open, the businesses to open fully, and then they can't make enough profit margin to pay their employees," says John.

There are no capacity limits on Ohio restaurants, but they must maintain social distancing.

Opponents, including most Democratic legislators and DeWine himself, say it limits the governor's authority when decisive action is needed. DeWine says he believes the bill is unconstitutional, and has defended his benchmark for lifting public health orders, pointing to a decrease in cases since December.

The House's margin of passage falls short of the 60 votes needed to overturn the governor's veto. However, five Republicans did not join in the vote, potentially offering enough to form a veto-proof majority.

House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) said Wednesday he was "absolutely positive" his chamber had the votes for an override.

State Rep. Nino Vitale (R-Urbana) a vocal critic of DeWine's response to the pandemic and the state-issued health orders, joined Democrats in voting "no" on SB22.

"While I agree with the premise of the bill, I cannot vote for something that is both unconstitutional and frankly does nothing," Vitale wrote in a statement. "The legislature has had 12 months to restrict the governor powers. It has collectively chosen not to. SB22 does nothing we cannot already do. It should have had a 15 or 30-day clause termination."

Vitale pointed out that state Rep. Jena Powell (R-Arcanum) drafted an amendment to have states of emergency expire after 30 days, but Cupp did not allow Powell to present that amendment on the House floor.

"When I attempted to present my amendment on the floor, I was disregarded," Powell wrote in her own statement. "All Democrats who wanted to present amendments were allowed to do so, but I was not. Leadership made it apparent that they do not care about the 120,000+ individuals that I represent. We filed a motion to reconsider so that members could speak, but the Speaker recessed session, allowing SB22 to be concurred on in the Senate – ultimately leaving my district without a voice. The Speaker and leadership should be ashamed at the lack of respect for Ohioans they showed today."

When asked why he did not let an elected official present their amendment on the House floor, Cupp said "the bill that was passed today was supported by the Republican caucus, it was agreed to by the Senate."

DeWine has 10 days after receiving the bill to make a decision. Both chambers of the legislature said they are prepared to hold an override vote if he vetoes.

On Wednesday, Ohio reports over 983,000 cases of COVID-19, and 17,662 residents have died.

What questions do you have about COVID-19 and Ohio's response? Ask below and WOSU may answer as part of our series A Year Of COVID.

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