Bill restricting local officials’ health orders passes

Indiana lawmakers voted Wednesday in favor of limiting the authority of county or city health departments by allowing local elected officials to overturn orders or enforcement actions issued during emergencies.

Republican supporters say the proposal is meant to provide a “check and balance”  protecting the rights of business owners after complaints about COVID-19 orders closing or limiting businesses that have been imposed over the past year.

The bill would require any local public health orders more stringent than one issued by the governor must be approved by an elected county or city board. The Senate voted 37-12 and House members voted 65-29 to advance Senate Enrolled Act 5 to Gov. Eric Holcomb for consideration.

Some medical and health organizations opposed the bill, arguing against shifting authority away from public health professionals to local elected officials who largely don’t have such experience.

Holcomb has said he was concerned about the proposed limitations on local health officials and that he would “take a hard look” at the bill. The governor’s office said Tuesday he would review the final bill.

Legislative Republicans voted last week to override Holcomb’s veto on House Enrolled Act 1123, giving themselves more authority to intervene during statewide emergencies declared by the governor.

Republican Sen. Chris Garten of Charlestown said he believed appointed local health officials shouldn’t have unchecked power to shut down or other restrict businesses.

“We’re simply saying that anyone in a position, in a democratic republic, that has that much unparalleled power should get a second set of eyes to look at it,” Garten said.

The bill also creates a procedure allowing the public to appeal enforcement actions such as citations, fines or an order to close a business to an elected county or city board. Final negotiations on the bill left out provisions from a previous version that would have allowed a business to stay open during its appeal even if it was not following health orders.

Democrats argued that the bill gives politicians too much control over public health decisions and could jeopardize the public.

“I don’t understand why in this bill dealing with emergency stuff we’re actually hamstringing local health departments and making it harder for orders to go into effect that prevent you and me getting sick,” said Rep. Ryan Dvorak, a South Bend Democrat. “I think this is a really dumb part of the bill.”

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