Ohio lawmakers pass bill stripping Gov. Mike DeWine of his power to issue statewide coronavirus orders

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Ohio lawmakers on Thursday sent Gov. Mike DeWine a bill that would strip his administration of the authority to issue statewide coronavirus orders, even though the governor said the measure would be “a disaster” and vowed to veto it.

Senate Bill 311, which passed 58-30 along party lines, would ban the Ohio Department of Health from issuing mandatory quarantine orders enforced against people who are not diagnosed as sick or directly exposed to disease. It passed the state Senate in September.

The bill would not void existing statewide orders, including the three-week 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew announced by the governor earlier this week, a renewed statewide mask mandate, and a “stay-at-home” order like the one DeWine ordered the state health director to issue last spring. But it would prohibit such orders from being issued in the future, and it would allow lawmakers to vote to rescind any existing state health order.

Supporters say the legislation provides a needed check on the DeWine administration’s authority to unilaterally issue health orders. Conservatives, in particular, have fiercely criticized many of DeWine’s coronavirus policies, arguing they infringe on personal freedoms and unnecessarily devastate the state’s economy.

A lengthy House floor debate prior to the vote involved Republican proponents arguing that they are expressing the will of their constituents and rightly checking the power of the governor versus Democrats who pointed to opposition from public-health experts saying the bill would cripple efforts to fight the coronavirus.

“The administration is acting as two branches of government. This is not the way our republic was intended to work,” said state Rep. Scott Wiggam, a Wooster Republican, during a House floor speech Thursday. Wiggam said the bill was “not a debate about the seriousness of the coronavirus or any potential future outbreak,” but rather about protecting Ohioans’ rights “against government overreach.”

State Rep. Reggie Stoltzfus, a Stark County Republican, said that his constituents are “furious” about the governor’s orders. “Ohioans are scared of this virus,” Stoltzfus said. “But Ohioans are also scared about what the governor is going to do next.”

State Rep. Allison Russo, a Democrat from suburban Columbus, said “we all understand the value” of checks and balances and hearing from constituents.

“But we are in a position right now where our public health authorities need to be able to react quickly,” Russo said.

State Rep. Brigid Kelly, a Cincinnati Democrat, said if SB 311 becomes law, it “will only lead to more deaths and further destabilize our economy.” Kelly asked: “Is it that science and data really matter? Or is it that science and data be damned because we think we know better?”

DeWine, a Greene County Republican, said during a televised coronavirus briefing Thursday that he has “a moral obligation” to veto the bill, as it would hamstring his ability to respond to a number of crises, from pandemics to biological weapon attacks.

“This bill would make Ohio slow to respond to a crisis. It would take tools away from this governor and future governors,” DeWine said. “It would put the lives of Ohioans in jeopardy. This bill is a disaster.”

If DeWine follows through on his promise to reject SB 311, the Ohio Senate could override his veto if three-fifths of senators (20 of 33) vote to make it law. The bill passed the Senate in September with exactly 20 votes.

Senate Bill 311 just the latest in a series of bills the Republican-dominated Ohio legislature has passed since the coronavirus crisis emerged this spring to rein in the governor’s power to issue coronavirus-related rules.

In July, DeWine vetoed Senate Bill 55, which would decriminalize violations of public health orders.

Other legislation still pending in the Ohio General Assembly to rein in the governor’s coronavirus power include:

  • Senate Bill 374, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Senate President Larry Obhof, a Medina Republican, that would repeal a three-month-old executive order from DeWine requiring bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m.
  • Senate Bill 31, the House version of which would require local health officials to get written approval from contract-tracing participants. House and Senate members still have to work out in conference committee whether to keep the contact-tracing provision in the final version of the bill.
  • Senate Bill 375, which would void a DeWine administration coronavirus order closing county fairs except for junior fair activities. The Ohio Senate passed it on Wednesday.

*story by cleveland.com