Republican legislators representing Fulton County voted yes May 6 to restrict the authority held by Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton, and say it’s time to reopen businesses and recharge the state’s faltering economy.
Co-sponsored by District 1 Senator Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) and District 27 Senator Kristina Roegner (R-Hudson), an amended version of Senate Bill 1 was passed 58-37 by members of the House, and now returns to the Senate for approval. The amendment added by House members involves a regulatory reform bill passed last year and would limit orders from the state health department to 14 days. SB1 gives the Joint Committee On Agency Rule Review (JCOARR) final approval of any extension request for an order.
That committee, composed of bipartisan House and Senate members, can immediately rescind a health department order after 14 days by choosing to reject, or even refuse to consider, an extension.
A return of the amended SB1 to the Senate for consideration had not be scheduled at presstime.
Dr. Acton’s participation in statewide orders for social distancing and staying at home, among other precautions, have reflected her conservative stance in lessening the spread of the coronavirus. She has appeared almost daily with Gov. Mike DeWine on televised press conferences that update the state’s fight against COVID-19.
The original draft of SB1 called for a 30% reduction in regulatory restrictions by 2022 and to inventory restrictions that state agencies establish.
A joint McColley and Roegner press release issued by McColley’s office in response to a request for an interview stated that SB1 “would drastically improve Ohio’s economy and job growth by eliminating unnecessary and burdensome administrative rules. Cutting this red tape will positively impact businesses in our community, many of which are struggling because of the pandemic.”
It said the amended bill will limit Dr. Acton’s authority to issue long-standing health regulations that have kept businesses shuttered and people quarantined at home during the pandemic.
“I feel the House amendment addressing the director of health’s ability to issue an order is appropriate given the circumstances,” the press release stated. “Our government was not set up for one branch to have the authority to disrupt the general public’s lives and businesses for this long without some form of check or balance. The time has come to reflect the will of many Ohioans by restoring balance to our government.”
It added, “This has gone on long enough. Ohioans came together to flatten the curve of this pandemic and we did it successfully. Now we need to open our state before the damage is irreparable.”
Referring to Dr. Acton, District 47 State Representative Derek Merrin (R-Monclova) said, “It’s important to have checks and balances. We can’t have indefinite orders by an unelected official.”
Merrin, who voted yes for the amended SB1, said the state law from which the health director is assuming authority in COVID-19 matters dates to 1908. “I don’t believe it was intended to give her the type of power she’s trying to exercise,” he said.
And while the law does permit Dr. Acton to issue orders regarding the pandemic, SB1’s passage would authorize legislative oversight of her decisions, Merrin said.
“How can anyone be against legislative oversight in following her orders?” he said. “It’s reasonable public policy to update a 100-year-old law that hasn’t been modernized to reflect policy.”
Complaints by Democrats that the JCOARR is unqualified for involvement because its members include no health experts are moot, Merrin said, since the panel will have access to health officials other than Dr. Acton.
“It’s not reasonable to simply hear one person’s viewpoint. We need to hear bipartisan viewpoints from experts across the state and nation…We need to weigh everyone’s opinion,” he said.
Merrin said he’s signed into framework that calls for state businesses to reopen, adding, “People have a right to participate in the enterprise system. And people have the right to not go to those businesses if they don’t want to. The purpose of the closures and restrictions was to make sure there was no surge on the hospital system. The goal was never to kill the virus, per se.”
He said it’s apparent that DeWine’s COVID-19 restrictions have significantly hurt the state economy. “There’s no debate about that,” he said.
But what Merrin said most concerns him are the increased levels of suicide, drug abuse, and domestic violence since the state’s stay-at-home order took effect.
“The government is not allowing people to work to provide for their families. Also, a lot of people are being denied elective health care, which has impacted the health of many Ohioans,” he said.
District 81 State Representative Jim Hoops (R-Napoleon) also supported the amended bill. He commended DeWine and Dr. Acton for their work on trying to suppress the coronavirus in the state, but said putting more heads together to resolve the problem can only help.
“Basically, there hasn’t been much input,” Hoops said.
He said language he and fellow legislators placed in the amended bill is a good starting point for further discussion.
“I think they’re doing a good job through this tough time,” he said of DeWine and Dr. Acton. “The director still has authority to put orders out there but we legislators…we felt this language we put in the bill is a good starting point to that discussion.”
And JCOARR is a good vehicle for gathering other opinions, Hoops said.
“How do we as a collective body find a way to look at this, because this is unprecedented,” he said. “You bring people in to explain why we do what we do. It’s just keeping the line of communication open. (And) I think people expect us to be involved in that process. They elected us to set policy. This will, maybe, open it up a little more.”
Hoops isn’t certain the governor’s pacing to reopen the state is exacerbating the economy’s downturn, and thinks the reopening process is being done smartly. But he also knows his constituents are becoming frustrated.
“Again, it’s all what-ifs. It is what it is. We’re trying to use the science and the models but we’ve never had to go through this before,” he said. “I would say we’re at the mercy of the economy and trying to keep people safe. It’s a balancing act.”
The state will have to rely on the intelligence of both its leaders and business owners, he added.
“I think we’re doing it in a smart way,” he said. “Decisions have to be made. We have to be vigilant, be safe, be smart. We have smart (business owners). I don’t think they’re going to do something that will put themselves or their families in harm’s way. But I’ll know more after a year.”
He’s also certain this won’t be the end of crises the magnitude of the coronavirus.
“I don’t think this is the last time we’re going to have to deal with something like this. The world is just so interconnected,” Hoops said. “But I think the people on the front line are doing a great job.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.