Lawmakers vote to curb public health powers, bill now heads to DeWine

The Ohio House voted 57-37 on Wednesday in favor of a bill that seeks to weaken public health authorities, such as orders to stay at home, close businesses, avoid crowds or wear masks, and gives lawmakers more influence over how health emergencies are handled.

Senate Bill 22 would allow a 10-member legislative panel to oversee actions taken by the governor and public health officials during emergencies. The panel would have the authority to rescind orders that have been in place for 10 days and orders would expire after 90 days, unless lawmakers agreed to extend them.

It cleared the Senate on a 25-8 vote on Feb. 17. And the Senate on Wednesday voted 25-8 in favor the House changes in the bill. It now heads to Gov. Mike DeWine, who is expected to veto it.

Senate President Matt Huffman said he believes he has the 20 votes needed in the Senate to override a veto.

House Speaker Bob Cupp said he is absolutely positive he has the votes needed to override a veto, noting that several members were absent for the vote Wednesday but support the bill.

While dozens of individuals testified in favor of the bill, many from the medical community opposed it, including Ohio Public Health Association, Ohio Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Bruce Vanderhoff and Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Chief Clinical Officer Andrew Thomas.

Thomas, who testified on behalf of the Ohio State Medical Association, said feedback from knowledgeable lawmakers during an emergency may be helpful but some aspects of the bill would “serve to paralyze health experts in their efforts to stop this or future pandemics and puts the lives of Ohioans at great risk.”

DeWine twice vetoed similar bills last year and has opposed legislative attempts to weaken the executive branch’s authority over public health orders.

The House also voted 86-7 on House Bill 128, which would cancel subsidies attached to Ohio electric bills to bail out nuclear power plants owned by Akron-based Energy Harbor. The bill also would repeal other financial benefits earmarked for Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. but leave in place subsidies for the Ohio Valley Electric Corp. coal-fired plants.

The Senate passed a similar bill that seeks to unravel portions of House Bill 6, a controversial energy law at the center of an FBI public corruption investigation.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio on Wednesday ordered auditors to examine whether transactions flagged by FirstEnergy were billed to ratepayers. FirstEnergy disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission that certain transactions were improperly classified, lacked supporting documentation or were misallocated. Among the flagged transactions is a $4.3 million payment in January 2019 to someone who was appointed an Ohio utility regulator in February 2019 and took the job in April 2019.

Energy attorney Sam Randazzo wasn’t named in the disclosure, but the description points to him. He resigned as chairman of the PUCO after the FBI searched his home.

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