With a new term of the Ohio General Assembly comes a new effort by Republican lawmakers to target the authority of state health officials to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new bill proposes the creation of a legislative committee that could strike down health orders, emergency declarations and executive orders from the governor.
It would also empower the full legislature to be able to rescind such declarations and executive orders by a vote.
Senate Bill 22 was introduced by Sens. Terry Johnson and Rob McColley, and is co-sponsored by 13 other Republicans in the Ohio Senate. McColley introduced similar bills to this end in the previous term.
McColley emphasized repeatedly his view that SB 22 is not directed at Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health in particular. Instead, he argued during the bill’s first committee hearing on Tuesday that it reflects another attempt to establish legislative checks and balances to the state’s executive powers in handling a pandemic.
The state health director has enacted sweeping orders over the past year designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. The orders have repeatedly cited a portion of Ohio Revised Code which gives the health department authority to issue “special or standing orders … for preventing the spread of contagious or infectious diseases.”
The virus has killed nearly 11,000 Ohioans to date, or several thousand more than live in McColley’s hometown of Napoleon.
What this bill would do
SB 22 would create an Ohio Health Oversight and Advisory Committee consisting of five state senators and five state representatives. The senate president and house speaker would appoint their respective chamber’s members, with three coming from the majority party and two from the minority party.
Under the current make-up of the Ohio General Assembly, this committee would be led by Republicans.
The committee would have the power to rescind any health department order by majority vote. It would also be able to rescind any executive order or emergency declaration issued by the governor.
State officials would be prohibited from reissuing the order (or any “substantially similar executive order”) for 90 days following the committee’s vote.
The bill also mandates that a public state of emergency — like the one signed by DeWine in March 2020 and is still in place — would only be valid for 30 days. SB 22 would require the Ohio General Assembly to approve resolutions to extend the state of emergency for a longer period of time.
A state of emergency allows the government to better coordinate its response to a pandemic; it also suspends certain purchasing and contracting requirements to allow the government to quickly secure resources needed.
“These orders have been continuously extended with no oversight or approval,” McColley said on Tuesday, “and have essentially granted the governor’s office and the department of health lawmaking authority that it simply doesn’t have under our constitution.”
Johnson, an osteopathic physician who typically does not wear face masks, called the bill a “responsible safeguard” against executive overreach.
“It is important that we, the legislative branch, are engaged when it comes to making decisions that so powerfully affect the health, safety, welfare and freedom of our constituents,” he said.
This proposed law resembles Senate Bill 311 from the last term, which was also sponsored by McColley. That bill would have given the legislature the power to vote down any public health orders and also restricted the health department’s authority to issue widespread quarantine orders.
DeWine opted to veto SB 311, repeating his call from throughout the pandemic that the legislature should not inhibit his administration’s ability to aggressively combat the deadly virus.
Despite a push for the chambers to override DeWine’s veto, no such vote was taken during the lame duck session.
McColley noted on Tuesday that SB 22 would not go into effect for several months, even if it swiftly advanced through the legislative process and became law.
Still, he said, Republicans feel the legislation “is absolutely crucial for this state.”