A Republican bill that would curb the power of Ohio Department of Health director Dr. Amy Acton reflects a split in how to restart Ohio's economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The proposal’s sudden journey to the floor started in a House committee hearing a Senate bill on reducing regulations. An amendment was added to make all new health department orders effective for 14 days and then would require a supermajority of lawmakers from each chamber on a legislative panel to vote to extend those orders.
Through Acton, Gov. Mike DeWine has used public health orders to close businesses and schools, cancel March's in-person election, and lay out health restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
State Rep. John Becker (R-Union Township) had proposed a bill to make public health orders advisory unless lawmakers made them mandatory. While he said this amendment didn’t do enough, he supported it.
“There’s no longer a risk of overwhelming the health care system – I’m not sure there ever was, but that argument did make sense to me initially," Becker said. "We have a million people that are out of work, and that it all because of the policy of the state of Ohio. And that needs to be changed."
Democrats pushed back, including state Rep. Fred Strahorn (D-Dayton), who said it's not OK to play politics with this issue.
“This amendment is not needed. It’s irresponsible," Strahorn said. "And if we allow this to pass into law, it literally will cost people their lives, and many lives."
The bill passed the committee on a party line vote, and the full House took it up a few hours later.
Its sponsor, state Rep. Scott Wiggam (R-Wooster), said it would ensure lawmakers “won't be effectively made mute and impotent in times of crisis." He argued that it gave Ohioans a voice.
But state Rep. Brigid Kelly (D-Cincinnati) said because the proposal moved so quickly, it hadn’t been vetted and opponents hadn’t gotten a chance to respond.
“This is an extraordinary time," Kelly said. "This is a time when Ohioans should know that their elected leaders are doing our homework and should trust that we are doing everything we can to keep them and their families safe, and they should never doubt that we are going to put Ohioans and their families above politics."
State Rep. Susan Manchester (R-Waynesfield) said lawmakers care about those Ohioans with COVID-19, which she noted add up to about 0.5% of the state’s population.
“Those aren’t just statistics – those are real people," Manchester said. "We also care about the 99.5% facing a range of other health challenges as well, including the anxiety, stress and mental health related to losing a job or having business shut down.”
Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) contends that Democrats care about businesses too, and pointed out the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on black Ohioans – who are overwhelmingly represented by Democrats opposed to the amendment.
Sykes recalled a statement in which House Speaker Larry Householder said his caucus felt “disrespected” by DeWine’s decision to reopen Ohio more slowly than most Republicans would like.
“Let me be very clear – it is disrespectful to not include the thoughts, the feelings, the concerns of the over 4 million people that the Democratic Caucus represents. That is disrespect," Sykes said.
The House passed the bill 58-37, mostly along party lines – only state Reps. Dave Greenspan (R-Westlake) and Gayle Manning (R-North Ridgeville) joined all Democrats in voting against it.
That margin was not veto-proof, should it pass the Ohio Senate. The bill must go back to Senators to agree with the changes.
After the vote, Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford) – among several Republicans not wearing a mask during the proceedings – said the bill should give everyone more confidence in whatever public orders issued by the governor that would be extended by that panel of lawmakers.
“I don’t know of anybody, any reasonably minded person, someone that could be elected by their fellow people, their peers back in their district, why anybody reasonable wouldn’t agree with reasonable orders," Householder said. "And so I don’t see it in any way affecting what the governor trying to do. I commend what the governor has did so far. But I think there has to be legislative oversight.”
Householder said that since DeWine’s orders are slowly opening the economy, the bill is more about the future, if a second wave of COVID-19 hits later this year.
— Governor Mike DeWine (@GovMikeDeWine) May 6, 2020
DeWine put out a statement saying he’s working on increasing testing and tracing, balancing the state’s budget and moving the economy forward.
"Ohioans need their legislators focused on these important issues," DeWine wrote. "Creating more uncertainty regarding public health and employee safety is the last thing we need as we work to restore consumer confidence in Ohio's economy."
A spokesman later confirmed he would veto the bill if it comes to him.