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Ohio lawmakers to decide fate of Senate bill that targets regulation in the state

Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton has become a lightning rod for criticism for her various orders, which closed many businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton.

COLUMBUS — State lawmakers could soon debate the differences between the House and Senate versions of Senate Bill 1 and decide whether to revise or scrap a provision targeting directives from the state’s health department.

The state Senate passed SB 1, which targets regulation in the state, last May. Earlier this month, the state House revived the bill and added an amendment giving the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, a 10-member committee of House and Senate members, oversight of orders issued by the Ohio Department of Health.

ODH Director Amy Acton has become a lightning rod for criticism for her various orders, which closed many businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, on Wednesday, the Senate unanimously rejected the amended version of SB 1, sending it to a conference committee to hash out the differences.

“This legislation does not undo current orders issued by Ohio’s Director of Health,” House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said in a statement announcing a conference committee. “What it does do is provide for appropriate and reasonable legislative oversight on future orders issued by the state health director under one statute: Ohio Revised Code 3701.13.”

“Senate Bill 1 was carefully crafted to allow state health directors to act quickly in times of emergency while also providing appropriate legislative oversight,” Householder added.

The announcement of a conference committee comes after Lake County Court of Common Pleas Judge Eugene Lucci barred the governor and the state Department of Health from “imposing or enforcing penalties solely for noncompliance with the director’s order” against health clubs, gyms and other workout facilities. The ruling allows the facilities to reopen if they comply with state safety guidelines.

“The general public would be harmed if an injunction was not granted,” Lucci wrote. “There would be a diminishment of public morale, and a feeling that one unelected individual could exercise such unfettered power to force everyone to obey impermissibly oppressive, vague, arbitrary and unreasonable rules that the director devised and revised, and modified and reversed, whenever and as she pleases, without any legislative guidance. The public would be left with feelings that their government is not accountable to them.”

The ruling came in a case that 35 gyms across the state filed, which sought to stop the ODH from continuing to force closures.

“Constitutions are written to prevent governments from arbitrarily interfering in citizens’ lives and businesses,” Maurice Thompson, executive director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, which represented the businesses, said in a news release. “On that front, the call to action is clear: the governor and health director may no longer impose their own closures and regulations and write their own criminal penalties to enforce those regulations and closures.”

The governor disagreed with the ruling’s interpretation of the law.

“The ruling affirms that facilities must follow Ohio Department of Health safety protocols to keep patrons and all Ohioans safe and healthy,” Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Gov. Mike DeWine, said in an email. “These facilities were due to open Tuesday anyway. However, our office disagrees with the ruling’s analysis of law.”

Even if SB 1 doesn’t proceed with the oversight provision, lawmakers could soon consider several other bills targeting pandemic orders, including Senate Bill 311, House Bill 618 and House Bill 649.

“If you’re going to try to change the law, then everybody that is affected by it ... should be involved in how and whether or not to change it,” state Rep. John Rogers, D-Mentor-on-the-Lake, told The Center Square.

— Story courtesy of The Center Square.