Lawmakers look to restrict public health powers

The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.

For the second day in a row, the Ohio House passed legislation designed to weaken the powers of public health authorities, who are in the middle of fighting a global pandemic.

The House voted 58-30 in favor of Senate Bill 311, which would block the state health department from issuing mandatory, statewide stay-at-home orders that apply to people who aren’t sick or weren’t known to be exposed to an infectious disease. It would also give lawmakers power to rescind certain state health department orders or rules.

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State Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, said the bill would “restore checks and balances” between branches of government.

The Senate already approved the bill.

The Ohio Association of Health Commissioners, which opposes the bill, called it a “dramatic change in public health authority” that would weaken the ability to control the spread of infectious diseases.

On Wednesday, the House voted 75-11 for House Bill 621, which would weaken the governor’s broad powers to close businesses during public health emergencies. The bill would allow businesses ordered shut down through a public health order to stay open if they complied with safety protocols that essential businesses follow. It is supported by small business groups.

HB621 still needs to clear the Ohio Senate.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has said he will veto both measures. Overriding a gubernatorial veto requires 60 votes in the House and 20 in the Senate.

“(Senate Bill) 311 is a disaster,” he said. “I know it’s well-intended by the General Assembly, but when you look at the ramifications, this is not a bill that can become law.”

While the House vote on SB311 fell short of the 60 that would be needed to override a veto, just two of the 11 lawmakers absent Thursday would be needed to join the bill supporters to override a veto.

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The Ohio House also gave final legislative approval to House Bill 123, which aims to reduce suicide and violence among young Ohioans. It would require school districts to register with the SaferOH tip line or establish another anonymous reporting program for threats and safety concerns; require schools serving sixth through 12 grades to have team members complete threat assessment training; and annual training in suicide awareness and prevention for staff in schools serving sixth through 12th grades.

The House also gave final approval to Senate Bill 89, which makes changes to Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program.

For years, students have been able to pay for private schools with help from taxpayer-funded EdChoice vouchers, if their home public school qualified as “underperforming” or if their family income was below certain levels. The vouchers are up to $4,650 for K-8 and $6,000 for grades 9-12 to attend private schools.

The bill, which heads to DeWine for consideration, calls for expanding eligibility for the program to include families who are at 250% of the federal poverty level, up from 200%.

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Under the new rules, students in 469 under performing schools could be eligible for EdChoice vouchers. Currently, 1,200 buildings are on the voucher eligibility list.

“In the long term, these changes will be very positive for Ohio families and schools,” said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in a written statement. “These last eight months have reminded us that education isn’t one size fits all. Families need options. The EdChoice program is well positioned going forward to provide opportunities to many more Ohio students — especially the most disadvantaged — to find a school that works for them.”

Staff writer Jordan Laird contributed to this report.

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