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Ohio Senate Republicans want the power to rescind governor's health orders

Anna Staver
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio Senate Republicans want to create a committee that can rescind a governor's public health order, such as those that closed businesses and schools early in the coronavirus pandemic.

Ohio's Republican state senators want to overhaul how the governor and health director issue curfews, business restrictions and other stay-at-home orders. 

"We’re not drafting a new law," Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said. "This is a reworking of a 100-year-old system."

The biggest change they want is the power to review – and potentially rescind – Gov. Mike DeWine's public health orders. But Senate Bill 22 would make several significant changes to the way Ohio handles another public health emergency:

  • Create a 10 person committee (five senators, five representatives) with the power to rescind any public health emergency after its been in place for 10 days. 
  • Limit public health states of emergency to 30 days total unless Ohio's lawmakers pass a joint resolution to extend them. 
  • Let the committee "rescind a special or standing order or rule for preventing the spread of a contagious or infectious disease issued by the department of health" at any time. 
  • Require the governor to report every action he or she "takes in response to the public health state of emergency."

The reason for all these changes, according to the bill's sponsors, is that the current system gives too much power to Ohio's executive branch – including the authority to dole out criminal penalties for health order violations. 

"Essentially, we've granted the governor’s office and the (Ohio) Department of Health lawmaking authority that it simply does not have under our constitution ...," Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, said. "The bill would simply put in place checks and balances that as we’ve seen over the past year are absolutely necessary."

The governor might not see it that way. 

His office didn't respond to a request for comment, but DeWine has been clear from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that he would veto any legislation that got in the way of what he viewed as his ability to manage its spread. 

In December, he vetoed a bill that would have restricted the health department's authority to keep people in quarantine.  And in January, DeWine vetoed another bill that lifted his restrictions on county fairs.

"This is not an attack on Gov. DeWine or the director of the department of health," McColley said. "The hope is that this would naturally become much more of a cooperative effort between the legislative and executive branch. 

Democrats, however, aren't convinced that's what would happen. 

Sens. Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus, and Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, both said they worried these changes could start fights between the two branches of government at a time when the focus should be on the health and safety of all Ohioans. 

"I know my friends on the other side of the aisle are a little angry at the governor," Thomas said. "But I’m not willing to warm up to limiting his authority."

astaver@dispatch.com

@annastaver