The Ohio House voted along party lines to limit power held by the Ohio Department of Health director and lessen the penalties for violating public health orders, prompting Gov. Mike DeWine to say he’ll veto the bills if they reach his desk.
The GOP-controlled House, which returned to Columbus Wednesday for the first time since late March, passed amended Senate Bill 1 and amended Senate Bill 55.
State law on the books since 1886 gives the state health director broad powers to order isolation and quarantine as a means to protect public health. Enforcement can be carried out by state and local heath departments and law enforcement.
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For the first time in at least a century, the Ohio Department of Health, led by Dr. Amy Acton, has broadly used that authority to close bars and restaurants, shut down K-12 schools and require Ohioans to stay home.
DeWine said the nature of a health emergency requires quick action and now is no time to change the law. “The actions taken we’ve taken under this law have been highly successful.”
Lawmakers, frustrated by the orders and the economic fallout, are seeking to restrict mandatory stay-home and closure orders to 14 days. After that, orders would require approval from a legislative rule making body. Any order issued by ODH after April 28 could not be extended without approval from the legislative rule making body.
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The House also approved changes to reduce penalties for violating public health orders to a minor misdemeanor and lower potential fines.
The two bills now return to the Ohio Senate for consideration of House changes, which is uncertain.
Some Republican lawmakers want to curb the authority of public health officials while some Democrats view it as a dangerous attack that would hamstring swift action during a pandemic.
In a Facebook post, State Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, criticized Acton and urged state senators to approve the bill that would limit the director’s powers. “Do you think a campaign manager for Barrack Obama and the Pro-Abortion Global Health Professor, Amy Beech Acton, should be the Medical Dictator of Ohio? Do you believe in a Representative Republic or a Medical Dictatorship?” he wrote in the post.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley in her Twitter post rebuked Republicans for trying to undermine Acton and putting politics before people.
State Rep. Jena Powell, R-Arcanum, said in a written statement in support of SB1: “We have three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial – none of which is more important than the others. Checks and balances in government are crucial as we move forward. We have to make sure that everyone’s voice is being heard.”
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House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, who holds a master’s degree in public health, noted in a written statement that the ODH director’s authority hasn’t required legislative oversight “until that director in charge of a pandemic was a woman. A woman who has gained national praise for her prudent and quick response to a coronavirus pandemic and whose decisive actions have saved Ohio lives. This is what happens when a single party of mostly men are permitted to dominate both chambers of the state’s legislature – their fragile egos are hurt that a woman has more power and is more relevant than they are.”