Republican-led House OKs limits on Ohio health director
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Republican lawmakers frustrated with Ohio’s aggressive stay-at-home orders voted Wednesday in the GOP-controlled House to limit the authority of the state’s health director.
The move seeks to restrict mandatory closure and stay-at-home orders issued by the health department to 14 days. After that, the orders would need approval from a legislative rule-making body.
Gov. Mike DeWine blasted the move, saying his fellow Republicans should be focused on increasing coronavirus testing, dealing with a $775 million budget deficit and reopening the economy.
“Creating more uncertainty regarding public health and employee safety is the last thing we need as we work to restore consumer confidence in Ohio’s economy,” the governor said in a statement. DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said the governor would veto that measure and one that reduced penalties for violating the stay-at-home order if they made it to his desk.
Republican backers said the measure was an appropriate legislative check on the power of DeWine, and his health director, Dr. Amy Acton, who issued Ohio’s orders.
Acton has won praise for her aggressive decisions to combat the coronavirus spread, but those who think the state is moving too slow in reopening its economy have directed their anger toward her in recent weeks.
A small group of protesters stood outside her house last weekend, leading DeWine to later condemn the demonstration, saying “come after me.”
The partisan divide over Ohio’s reopening and its record unemployment emerged into full view at the Statehouse as House Republicans approved the limits on the health department along party lines.
“We are dealing with orders of the director of the Department of Health that had no due process whatsoever,” said Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican. “That had no hearings, that had no public comments, that had no oversight, that had no review by anybody save those in the executive branch.”
Democrats said the legislation undermined public health policy and the state’s responsibility to protect people during a crisis. House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes also said Acton made an easy scapegoat as an unelected official.
“We should not attack a woman just because she is exerting the power the legislature gave to her,” Sykes said.
House Speaker Larry Householder, a Glenford Republican, said he rejected proposals to require the health director to seek legislative approval before issuing orders.
Under the current plan, once a 14-day order was reviewed, “I think the Legislature would make the right decision. I’m not concerned about that,” Householder said.
The measure’s support was unclear in the GOP-controlled Senate. Earlier in the day, Senate President Larry Obhof said Ohio had had a “very positive” response compared to other states, and noted that DeWine “was very careful not to interfere with people’s constitutional rights.”
A day after DeWine announced plans to cut $775 million from state spending over the next two months, his budget director outlined more details about those plans.
While the biggest chunk will come from a $355 million reduction for schools, lower income districts were cut less per-pupil than those that are able to raise more money through property taxes, said Kimberly Murnieks, DeWine’s budget director.
The nearly $212 million cut from Medicaid will mainly come administrative cuts and eligibility for health-care services will not be reduced, she said, citing increased the need because of the pandemic.
Colleges and universities will see a nearly 4% cut. That amounts to a $15 million for Ohio State University and an $8 million reduction for the University of Cincinnati.
Overall, tax collections for Ohio in April were down 35%.
Meanwhile, commissioners in a Republican-dominated county in southwest Ohio are shunning $2.4 million in federal coronavirus relief funding.
Warren Commissioner David Young, a Republican, told The Cincinnati Enquirer he didn’t want “to be part of the feeding frenzy.” The county’s conservative commission also rejected federal stimulus funds under the Democratic Barack Obama administration.
The number of confirmed and probable deaths associated with the coronavirus has reached 1,225, state health officials said Tuesday. The department noted more than 21,000 presumptive and confirmed cases of the virus, including just over 4,000 hospitalizations.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Seewer reported from Toledo. Associated Press writer Dan Sewell in Cincinnati contributed.