Will Ohio lawmakers override Gov. Mike DeWine? A battle over the right COVID-19 response

Jessie Balmert
Cincinnati Enquirer
Will Ohio lawmakers override Gov. Mike DeWine's veto? The debate over what comes next continues.

COLUMBUS – Since March, Ohioans have debated the right balance of government restrictions and freedom of choice when responding to a once-in-a-century pandemic.

So perhaps it's no surprise that their legislators are having that same debate.

Lawmakers in Ohio's GOP-controlled Legislature have a choice: whether to override Gov. Mike DeWine's recent veto of Senate Bill 311, which would limit Ohio Department of Health's power to quarantine or isolate people. Only those directly exposed to COVID-19 or diagnosed with the disease could be forced to stay home.  

Some lawmakers are clamoring to override DeWine's veto quickly, but that didn't happen Wednesday.

That override is a stick that lawmakers can use to negotiate with DeWine to get what they really want. 

What they really want might be eliminating criminal penalties on public health orders and imposing civil fines instead. They could push to make sure small businesses aren't closed when their competitors remain open.

Negotiations between DeWine's team and Republican lawmakers continue. The bill is one of several lawmakers have passed to limit DeWine's authority to require masksclose certain businesses and enforce penalties on those who violate health orders. 

"We're talking to them about possible alternatives because I think we all want the same thing," Senate President Larry Obhof said. "We all want people to be safe. We all want people to be healthy, but we also don't want to have future shutdowns and we don't want to have the impact on people's economic wellbeing and on their liberty that they've had this year." 

If those conversations break down, Obhof has said he would override DeWine's veto. The Medina Republican says he has the 20 votes needed for an override. 

The ball would then be in the Ohio House of Representative's court. It's not clear whether the House would have the 60 votes needed to override DeWine's veto, especially if the chamber's number of positive COVID-19 cases rises.

On Tuesday, more than a dozen lawmakers were absent after four legislators – two Republicans and two Democrats – tested positive for COVID-19. 

Any override must happen before the end of the year for the law to take effect, and Ohio lawmakers have just one more day of floor votes scheduled. They could add sessions if needed. 

When asked if the positive COVID-19 tests were affecting business in the House, Speaker Bob Cupp said lawmakers were getting their work done. 

"We've tried to make the post-election session this year a little more rational than some other sessions," said Cupp, R-Lima. "We're narrowing the things that we have to get done." 

Cupp said House Republicans want Senate Bill 311 to become law, but the override process begins in the Ohio Senate. 

Negotiations about overrides and state health department restrictions largely haven't included Democrats, House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes said. 

"It is strange also that we would not have been part of any conversation because the members of our caucus have been most supportive of the governor in trying to protect all Ohioans," said Sykes, D-Akron. "While it may not be politically popular to want to work with the Democrats, we are still thinking about this in the same way."