Holcomb vetoes bill that would cut power of local health officials

In another pushback against fellow Republicans, Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed a bill on Tuesday that he said would have hampered the ability of local health officials to respond to emergencies.

Senate Enrolled Act 5 would have allowed local elected officials to overrule orders issued by a city or county health department during a public health emergency.

In his veto letter, Holcomb said the bill would have undermined “the successful balance” between protecting public health and the livelihood of Hoosiers.

“Throughout the pandemic, state and local leaders struck a careful balance between protecting both lives and livelihoods to ensure Indiana and our communities would come out of this pandemic as strong as possible,” Holcomb wrote.

He continued: “As a result, we now stand in an enviable position compared to many around the country. As evidence of this, look no further than our 3.9% unemployment, $2B in additional state revenues and our ability to make transformational investments in local communities in areas such as education, economic development and mental health.

Tuesday’s veto followed Holcomb’s recent rejection of another Republican legislative measure that would have weakened the governor’s powers during emergencies such as the pandemic. The Legislature overrode that veto and Holcomb is challenging that measure in court, setting up a legal battle that likely will have to be settled by the Indiana Supreme Court.

Regarding Senate Enrolled Act 5, many Republican lawmakers said it was needed to allow local officials to have checks and balances over health departments when health officials impose restrictions on citizens during emergencies.

Throughout the pandemic, many Republicans have been unhappy when local officials sometimes imposed stricter conditions than the state during the pandemic.

But many Democratic lawmakers said the bill would weaken the authority of health officials, who need to act quickly during emergencies.

The final version of the bill had passed the House by a vote of 65-29 and the Senate by a vote of 37-12.

Two of the largest health organizations in Indiana had urged Holcomb to veto the bill, saying that local health officials needed to act quickly during emergencies, and could not await the action of elected officials.

The Indiana Public Health Association (which represents several hospitals, health departments and medical organizations) and the Indiana State Association of County and City Health Officials (which represents the physician health officers and public health professionals at the local level) came out strongly against the bill.

They pointed out that every local health department already has citizen representation on it, and that adding an extra layer of oversight would just slow down the reaction time during a health emergency.

Under the bill, if the governor were to declare an emergency as an executive order, local health departments couldn’t adopt more stringent orders without first receiving approval from the local legislative body.

A citizen or business affected by an order could appeal the enforcement action directly in circuit or superior court or appeal to the legislative body that imposed the restriction.

Holcomb had repeatedly allowed local governments to impose more restrictive measures during the pandemic. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and the Marion County Health Department have continuously done so, as have some other counties.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, had said the pandemic revealed the important role of local health administrators, but said the legislation would rightly put them under the responsibility of local elected officials who are closer to the public during health emergencies.

In his veto letter, Holcomb said local health officers “must frequently make urgent, complex decisions to safeguard public health where time is of the essence and expertise is critical.”

He said illnesses such as rabies, human immunodeficiency virus, legionellosis, Eastern equine encephalitis, meningococcal meningitis and other diseases could be fatal and demand immediate public health intervention.

And the current focus on COVID-19 demands that local officials have sufficient power to respond to the pandemic, he said.

“We must not do anything that jeopardizes this as our heroic local health officials remain critical in the months to come,” he wrote, “as we accelerate our recovery and work to vaccinate many more Hoosiers.”

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