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Gov. Mike DeWine offers to decriminalize health order violations to hold off veto override

Randy Ludlow
The Columbus Dispatch
Gov. Mike DeWine is willing to decriminalize violations of public health orders to help stave off a threatened override of his veto.

In a bid to to preserve state health powers in the middle of a pandemic as lawmakers consider an override of his veto, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is is offering a side deal to substitute civil fines for the current criminal penalty for violation of health orders.

DeWine vetoed Senate Bill 311, a measure to limit the Ohio Department of Health's authority to order people into quarantine or isolation, leaving only those diagnosed with or directly exposed to COVID-19 subject to stay-at-home orders.

While emphasizing he is "not negotiating on that bill" with fellow Republicans, DeWine said in a year-end interview with Ohio Gannett newspapers that decriminalizing the second-degree misdemeanor for violating health orders is in play in a bid to help stave off a potential lame-duck override of his veto.

The governor said he is discussing the proposal with legislative leaders as they spend what is expected to be their last week at the Statehouse before adjourning the current two-year legislation session.

"It certainly is a possibility we could find common ground in regard to that," DeWine said. "I think it could appeal to the legislature, as well. We have always felt in many, many cases a civil penalty is more appropriate than a criminal penalty."

The stance represents a change for DeWine amid ongoing legislative fights over pandemic restrictions.

This past summer, he vetoed Senate Bill 55, which would have made the first offense for violating a health order a warning and lowered the maximum fine from $750 to $150 in making a second offense a minor violation rather than a misdemeanor.

The governor said he fully stands behind his veto earlier this month and plans no compromise on Senate Bill 311 and its attempt to restrict state health powers.

"The middle of a pandemic is no time to be doing this" as the state also needs to preserve the ability of future governors and state health officials to appropriately respond to threats to public health, DeWine said.

rludlow@dispatch.com

@RandyLudlow