DeWine vetoes bill targeting his pandemic authority; override awaits

By: - March 23, 2021 4:23 pm

Gov. Mike DeWine is pictured during a statewide address. Photo courtesy Ohio Channel.

Gov. Mike DeWine has vetoed a bill seeking to allow lawmakers to rescind public health orders they disagree with, once again fulfilling a pledge to block any legislation targeting his administration’s authority to respond aggressively to a deadly pandemic.

The ball is now in the legislature’s court to override his veto. Republican legislative leaders have already vowed to promptly schedule votes to do so.

DeWine said Monday his administration has tried to reach a compromise with Republican legislators in recent weeks, but has been unsuccessful.

“Senate Bill 22 jeopardizes the safety of every Ohioan,” DeWine wrote in his veto message. “It goes well beyond the issues that have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. SB 22 strikes at the heart of local health departments’ ability to move quickly to protect the public from the most serious emergencies Ohio could face.”

SB 22 would allow lawmakers to strike down health orders they disagree with, such as the requirement that Ohioans wear face masks in public places. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

The Republican supermajorities in both chambers approved the bill earlier this month. SB 22, its sponsors say, is meant to adjust the framework for how Ohio’s government can respond to a public health crisis in the future by instituting “legislative oversight” of the executive branch. Other lawmakers and Ohio citizens who support the bill view the bill as a direct rebuke of the governor, with the hope being to restrict his power as the pandemic enters its second year.

House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, praised the veto decision and called SB 22 “a bad bill.”

“We are so close to turning the corner on the virus, but SB 22 threatens to undo all of that by slowing our response, putting more lives at risk and further destabilizing our economy,” the Minority Leader said in a provided statement. “House Democrats oppose any effort to override this veto.”

Even as case counts have significantly reduced and vaccine eligibility is has expanded to include the state’s entire adult population, Republican lawmakers are maintaining pressure against DeWine. Other pending bills call for ending the mask mandate and expunging health order penalties issued against businesses over the past year. 

It is SB 22, however, that emerged as an initial priority for the Ohio Republican as a new legislative term kicked off in January.

The bill would let the Ohio General Assembly be able to strike down public health orders, emergency declarations and other executive branch orders. Once rescinded, the state would be prohibited from reissuing a given order for at least two months. 

Under SB 22, these orders would be rescinded via concurrent resolutions as opposed to the passage of a bill. This is an important distinction — a bill is subject to a governor’s veto, while a concurrent resolution is not.

This provision may be unconstitutional, researchers with the Legislative Service Commission noted in February, as lawmakers cannot enact any law “except by bill.”

SB 22 also limits a governor’s “state of emergency” declaration to 30 days unless the legislature opts to extend it. The bill prevents a local board of health from issuing any widespread quarantine order. Health officials would only be able to require individuals to quarantine if they have been diagnosed with a contagious disease or have been in contact with someone who has.

DeWine has countered with the example of two Miami University students who in early 2020 traveled back to campus from Wuhan, China and were quarantined. DeWine argues that under SB 22 the students would not have necessarily had to cooperate with local health officials, potentially allowing the virus to spread unfettered.

“My responsibility is to think about future crises and to think of what today might be unimaginable but tomorrow might be reality,” the governor said after the bill passed. “We have seen the unimaginable in this pandemic become real.”  

The bill also creates an “Ohio Health Oversight and Advisory Committee,” made up of six lawmakers who would be tasked with consulting with the governor and state health department officials during a public state of emergency. The committee would have no voting power itself, but members could make recommendations to the entire legislative body.

State Sens. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, and Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, are the main sponsors of Senate Bill 22.

Sens. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, and Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, introduced SB 22 in January. Health departments from more than a dozen counties publicly opposed SB22, including three health commissioners from McColley’s legislative district.

Two other notable health officials testified against the bill: Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the chief medical officer of the Ohio Department of Health, and Dr. Andy Thomas, the chief clinical officer  of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“It is COVID-19 that has disrupted our lives and our economy, not the necessary efforts to contain it,” Vanderhoff told lawmakers.

A veto override requires a three-fifths vote from both legislative chambers. That means 60 votes in the Ohio House of Representatives and 20 votes in the Ohio Senate.

SB 22 passed 57-38 in the House, though four Republicans were not present for the vote. The House failed to secure the necessary votes to override DeWine’s vetoes on a pair of pandemic-related bills in 2020, but Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, believes that will not be a problem this time around.

Republicans gained four seats in the House for this term, giving the caucus 65 total members. Cupp has said he is “absolutely positive” his caucus has the votes needed to override.

The GOP holds a 25-8 supermajority in the Senate, and the SB 22 vote went along party lines earlier this month. Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, already pledged to schedule a veto override vote for the “next session” after the governor’s decision.

The Senate is scheduled to hold a legislative session on Wednesday; the House will meet Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Over the past year, GOP lawmakers have expressed discontent with the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Members have complained that the DeWine administration has not shared decision-making power with the legislature and has not adequately kept members apprised of the direction taken to stem the crisis. 

Republican lawmakers frequently reference about the economic toll still felt by the early shutdowns and the perceived negative effects of DeWine’s careful approach with schools and long-term care facilities. Many are still critical of the administration’s decision to postpone voting in the 2020 Primary Election just hours before polls were set to open.

At various points, the governor’s biggest critics at the Ohio Statehouse have blamed him for a reported increase in suicide ideation; have accused the state health department of deliberately providing “one-sided” data to promote “fear and despair”; and have broadly accused his administration of overstepping its bounds by enacting and enforcing health orders impacting nearly all facets of public life. 

This story is being updated.



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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.