Ohio Republicans passed a bill Wednesday let state lawmakers change or revoke the state's public health orders over the objections of Democrats and Gov. Mike DeWine.
"The most important decisions of the past year were all out of ours hands," Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, said. "Shutting down businesses. Telling people you are essential and not essential. Whether or not a mask mandate needs to continue. Those are pretty big decisions, and one person has made those."
Senate Bill 22, which passed through both the House and Senate on party-line votes, would change that by giving state lawmakers the power to rescind states of emergency and public health orders (mask mandates, occupancy limits).
The bill has one more hurdle before it becomes law: Ohio's Republican governor.
DeWine called an earlier version of the bill a "grave mistake," and he's vetoed every attempt to curb executive power since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
"I don't know that I am confident the governor is going to veto the bill as it stands," Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said.
He hoped DeWine would consider the amount of support SB 22 has within his own party, and the fact that Huffman's confident he has the votes to quickly override a veto.
House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, agreed.
"I’m absolutely positive about it," Cupp said when asked whether he had the votes for an override.
DeWine declined through a spokesman to comment.
- Any state of emergency order would expire after 90 days unless lawmakers voted to extend it in 60-day increments.
- Lawmakers could terminate the emergency after 30 days.
- Creates the Ohio Health Oversight and Advisory Committee with equal members from both chambers.
- Bans local boards of health from closing schools, issuing orders for specific types of businesses (i.e. shutting down gyms) or prohibiting public gatherings.
- Lets people sue the state on the constitutionality of any order in their county of residence and pays them attorney fees if they win.
The restrictions on local boards of health weren't in the original bill, but Wiggam called them an important change to prevent future governors from going around the law.
"If we rescinded the mask mandate at the state level, Franklin County couldn’t just come back in and issue a local one," Wiggam said.
That troubled House Democrats like Rep. Brigid Kelly, D-Cincinnati, because Ohio's counties have had dramatically different transmission rates throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
"If we are going to be working on something like this that is very consequential in ways people understand and don’t understand then it deserves more than two hearings," Kelly said.
And Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, worried the need for lawmakers to actively extend states of emergencies after 90 days could end up hurting Ohio's ability to get federal assistance in a crisis.
"This is not what the people want. This is not what most of you intended with this legislation," she said. "There are smart, thoughtful ways to do it, and this is not it."
But a lot of the objections came down to whether Republicans believe that wearing masks, closing businesses and limiting the size of public gatherings saved lives. Democrats said the bill would override public health experts and ultimately put the lives of Ohioans at risk during a global health crisis.
"I think there is this misconception in how this is being cast that if we allow the legislature to have any role in health orders, the result will be we will have no health orders," Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, said. "I think that's wrong. There were many orders issued during this pandemic that we have no issues with."