DeWine promises veto, offers compromise on GOP-backed bill


By Farnoush Amiri and Andrew Welsh-Huggins - Report for America/Associated Press



COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Gov. Mike DeWine predicted a chaotic future for Ohio in a letter Monday pleading with fellow Republican lawmakers to compromise on a health bill that would handicap the state’s ability to issue any orders during an emergency on the same day the state surpassed 1 million COVID-19 cases.

The Republican governor vowed on Tuesday to veto a bill that was passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature earlier this month. The promise came hours after he issued a five-page letter outlining how the proposal would impede the administrative branch’s ability to protect Ohioans, not only during the coronavirus pandemic but also amid weather emergencies, food contaminations, prison riots or terrorist attacks.

During his briefing Monday afternoon, DeWine said without providing details that he sent House and Senate leadership a compromise that would include their concerns for legislative oversight.

But for some lawmakers in his party, the governor’s attempts to find common ground came too late.

DeWine’s proposals over the weekend were just a last-minute attempt to delay the veto override, Senate Republican spokesperson John Fortney said Monday.

He added, if the governor “wanted to work with the General Assembly, that process should have started weeks ago when SB22 was in committee.” The Senate still plans to override a potential veto Wednesday, Fortney said.

In his letter, DeWine also warned members of his party of the onslaught of lawsuits that will flood the state’s courthouses under a provision of the bill that would allow anyone who feels aggrieved by a local or state health order to sue.

“So, at precisely the times that government must act with focus and resolve making immediate, decisive, gut-wrenching, and often unpopular decisions, SB 22 flings the Courthouse doors wide open for immediate judicial intervention,” DeWine wrote. “SB 22 not only allows for this, but encourages it through potentially lucrative attorneys’ fees and damage awards against the State.”

The Senate bill in question would allow state lawmakers to rescind public health orders issued by the governor or the Ohio Department of Health as soon as they take effect, as well as prevent the governor from reintroducing similar orders for at least 60 days. The bill would also limit state of emergency orders to a period of 90 days but allow lawmakers to extend them in 60-day increments indefinitely.

The legislative action is the latest in a yearlong attempt by GOP lawmakers to rein in DeWine’s authority to issue public health orders during the pandemic.

The Monday letter from the governor is addressed to GOP Rep. Scott Wiggam, of Wooster, who championed the bill to the House floor on March 10, where it passed on party lines. Wiggam praised the bill as bringing checks and balances back to state government after many Republican lawmakers saw DeWine’s pandemic powers to order lockdowns and issue mask mandates as having gone unchecked.

“We give the executive branch these powers and we can take them away,” Wiggam said Monday in response to DeWine’s letter. “After all, an order is not legislation, but the governor is trying to argue that it is.”

The lawmaker added, “He’s trying to be the legislative branch, the executive branch, and judicial all in one.”

One of the many examples DeWine highlights in the letter as detrimental to public safety is a restriction on the state health department from forcing someone to quarantine unless they’ve been “medically diagnosed” with an illness or have come into contact with someone who has.

This provision would have barred Ohio from enforcing quarantines on two Miami University students who returned to the state from Wuhan, China, in January 2020, potentially leading to the early spread of the virus, DeWine wrote.

In other coronavirus-related news:

UNCLAIMED VACCINE DOSES

Also on Monday, DeWine authorized clinics with unclaimed doses of the coronavirus vaccination to offer them to anyone age 16 or older, beginning immediately.

The state is currently offering vaccines to those 40 and older, with 16 and older scheduled for eligibility on March 29. On a visit to a Youngstown vaccine clinic, DeWine said not all doses are being claimed and any unclaimed doses can be offered to people 16 or older ahead of next week.

The state Health Department says 2.8 million people in Ohio have received at least one dose of the vaccine to date, or about 24% of the population. About 1.6 million people or about 14% of the population have completed the vaccine process.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Ohio did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 1,578 new cases per day on March 6 to 1,508 new cases per day on March 20, according to an Associated Press analysis of data provided by The COVID Tracking Project.

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Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

By Farnoush Amiri and Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Report for America/Associated Press