Ohio Senate votes against bill to limit state health director’s power

State Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, is seen advocating for sending amended SB1 to conference committee on Wednesday. Photo courtesy the Ohio Channel.

The Ohio Senate unanimously voted against an amended bill on Wednesday that would subject some orders from the state health director to a legislative review.

Republicans in the Ohio House of Representatives have defended the bill as allowing for checks and balances between branches of government. Senators of both parties offered numerous reasons for voting against the bill on Wednesday, with some saying it needs further consideration and others saying they disagree with it altogether.

With the House having voted for amended Senate Bill 1 but the Senate voting against, it now heads to a “conference committee” made up of members from both chambers to work out the disagreements.

It’s unclear how successful those negotiations may be. Not a single Democrat in either chamber voted for amended SB1. Some Republicans in the Senate are instead eyeing health department reforms through their own piece of legislation.

What led to Wednesday’s vote

This dispute began in late April, when Ohio House of Representatives Speaker Larry Householder issued a critical statement against Gov. Mike DeWine. Householder claimed the governor was not listening to proposals from the legislature, and said lawmakers feel “disrespected that their opinions have been largely disregarded by the (DeWine) Administration.”

Legislators worked from home through all of April, but sought to make their voices heard upon reconvening in early May. A House committee swiftly added amendments to Senate Bill 1, which had previously been dormant for over 10 months. A new portion of the bill proposed that orders from the Ohio Department of Health director lasting beyond 14 days would be subjected to a legislative review.

The committee heard no testimony about the changes before a Republican majority voted to send the amended bill to the House floor. A few hours later, Speaker Householder put the bill to a chamber-wide vote.

The House result was a near party-line vote: 58 out of 60 Republicans voted in favor, while 0 out of 38 Democrats did.

This sent the amended bill back to the Senate, which took no action for two weeks until voting Wednesday to reject it.

Reasons for voting against

Senators from both parties offered their reasons for voting against SB1 during floor speeches prior to the vote.

Republican State Sens. Kristina Roegner of Hudson and Rob McColley of Napoleon took issue with certain portions of the amended bill as it is written, but agree with the general effort to curb the powers of Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton.

Roegner and McColley are the original sponsors of SB1 and have since offered their own legislation to tackle reforms to the health department’s orders: Senate Bill 311. A Senate committee dealing with health legislation held its first hearing on SB311 shortly after Wednesday’s floor session to hear sponsor testimony from the two legislators.

SB311, like SB1, would subject some orders from Acton to a vote by the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, which comprises 10 lawmakers from both chambers.

State Sen. Nickie Antonio spoke out against the bill and its intentions:

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, also criticized legislators in both the Ohio House and Senate who want politicians to make decisions “about life or death” instead of relying on health experts:

Speaker Householder responds

Speaker of the House Larry Householder, R-Glenford, offered reaction to the Senate’s decision during a “press gaggle” after his chamber’s own session on Wednesday.

He argued the intention of the bill is not to scrutinize Acton, but to provide legislative oversight for similar health orders made in the future. To bolster his point, he noted the amended bill does not include an emergency clause — meaning it could not take effect until 90 days after the governor theoretically signed it. (This lack of an emergency clause is among the reasons why McColley said he was voting against in the Senate.)