Ohio Senate returns without voting on House plan to limit state’s top health official

Updated: May. 13, 2020 at 1:10 PM EDT
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (FOX19) - The Ohio Senate won’t act this week on the GOP-led House’s controversial legislation stripping power from the state’s top health official amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure appears likely to fail, at least in its current form when it comes up for a vote next week.

“I won’t try to predict the vote, but I think most members believe it needs more work,” Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina said.

The chamber is only having committee meetings this week and will hold a session next week.

“They will be focusing on legislation that will be very important to getting the economy back up and running and dealing with other issues that came up during the pandemic,” Obhoff said Wednesday. “These include prohibiting price gouging, fixing our unemployment compensation system, and limiting liability for businesses that re-open so that they are not deluged with frivolous lawsuits.”

The Senate leader has said they would consider anything the House passed and stressed he is “very protective of the legislative prerogative.”

The House plan, however, to block Dr. Amy Acton from extending stay-at-home orders beyond 14 days without approval by a joint committee of the legislature is guaranteed to bring much debate in the Senate.

The legislation also lowers penalties for violating the orders and permits lawsuits over them without having to prove irreparable harm.

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“We’ll probably vote next week. If we want to hold any hearings or make any amendments we would need to vote ‘no'” on the House plan, Obhof said.

The legislation was attached last minute as amendments to a Senate bill in the House’s State and Local Government Committee meeting without advance notice or any public testimony.

The tactic drew sharp criticism among House members who opposed it: every single Democrat and two GOP state representatives.

DeWine has not only vowed to veto it, but he also issued a rare statement blasting the House over the plan while they were still in session.

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The Senate will consider the governor’s veto now as they weigh it and was “basically presented with a take it or leave it vote without any hearings or any opportunity to fix problems," Obhof said.

He has described parts of the legislation “basically a reverse tort reform” and “basically a plaintiffs lawyer’s dream."

“It’s unfortunate that the House did this at the last minute without any real debate or input. For reasons we discussed last week, the bill doesn’t really work the way it’s currently written."

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On March 23, Dr. Acton imposed a statewide stay-at-home order to try to curtail the spread of coronavirus amid the current global pandemic. More than a million jobs have been lost in the state.

Last week, as that order was about to expire, Acton issued an extended version of that order in a new one called “Stay Safe Ohio” until May 29 with exceptions for businesses to reopen.

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Many businesses such as retail stores and malls have reopened under the latest order, and restaurants can begin outside dining on Friday. Inside dining will follow next week.

Massage, acupuncture, tattoo and piercing shops, and cosmetic therapy services also are set to reopen Friday.

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Both orders continue to keep closed some businesses like gyms and all schools and daycares and limit public gatherings.

This has upset House Republicans, led by Speaker Larry Householder, who already were critical of the DeWine’s administration and Acton’s orders.

House leaders say the impact of the coronavirus doesn’t justify the damage to the economy and as the state’s elected officials representing voters, they want a say in how and when Ohio reopens.

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On Tuesday, 35 independent gyms across the state sued the Ohio Department of Health for keeping gyms and fitness centers closed.

One is located in Greater Cincinnati: Evolution Fitness & Lifestyle Management on Linden Avenue in Deer Park.

Ohio Revised Code 3701.13 is a little-used, 1908 state law, that grants the state’s health director with broad authority to issue sweeping orders.

Unlike many state agency rules, these orders are not subject to legislative oversight - but GOP lawmakers say they should be.

Householder says their plan to reduce Acton’s powers and allow lawsuits “simply provide oversight.”

“The Ohio House will continue to pass legislation protecting Ohioans regardless of threats,” he told us last week.

He said the legislation is “a priority for 11.5 million Ohioans.”

DeWine has said the actions he and his administration have taken have been highly successful to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus and the state is now in a position to open only because of those actions.

On Tuesday, DeWine warned there is still very much a coronavirus risk as the state attempts to rebuild a working economy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a medical expert on the White House coronavirus task force, told a Senate committee on Tuesday aggressive state reopenings could lead to “needless suffering and deaths.”

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