Ohio House

The Ohio House of Representatives (State of Ohio photo)

COLUMBUS -- Republicans Mark Romanchuk and Larry Obhof agreed with one another late Wednesday afternoon when the Ohio General Assembly's workday was done.

No actions taken by the Ohio House or the Ohio Senate on Wednesday would do anything to immediately open the state's economy shuttered by Republican Gov. DeWine in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two veteran lawmakers said.

And for his part, the state's governor said he was focused on more important things than the House's approval of a bill that could provide more legislative oversight over the orders of his state health director, Dr. Amy Acton.

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"My administration is focused on the important things we need to do to help businesses responsibly reopen while protecting Ohioans' health and safety," the governor said after the House vote. "This week alone, this included increasing coronavirus testing and tracing, balancing Ohio's budget, and working on plans to move Ohio's economy forward."

DeWine didn't conduct his normal coronavirus press briefing Wednesday.

"Ohioans need their legislators focused on these important issues," the governor said. "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."

Acton's order, modified last week and extended until May 29, has come under pressure from some state leaders and residents who believe the state should re-start its economy sooner.

Mark Romanchuk mug shot

State Rep. Mark Romanchuk (R-Ontario)

Romanchuk, an Ontario resident who represents Richland County in the House, voted in favor of the legislation. He said the bill, which amended a Senate version approved in June 2019, would require consideration by the upper chamber.

Obhof, the Senate president whose district includes Richland and Ashland counties, said the Senate "would take a look" at the legislation, but offered no guarantees of quick action.

Even if the Senate, which is controlled by the GOP 24-9, approves the bill, it's likely DeWine would veto it and there didn't appear to be enough votes in the legislature to override a veto.

Also, the House bill was not approved with an emergency clause, meaning it would not take effect for 90 days from the date of DeWine's signature or a legislative override. That would push any implementation of the bill until the fall, at the earliest.

Creating more oversight of the executive branch decisions, not creating uncertainty, was the House goal, according to Romanchuk, in his fourth term in the House.

The bill, which would allow the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review to review Acton's orders under certain circumstances, was approved 58-37 with a few votes crossing party lines. The GOP controls 61 of the 99 House seats.

In shutting down large portions of the state with a "stay at home" order, Acton cited Ohio Revised Code 3701.13, a law with origins dating to 1908, initially ratified during a tuberculous epidemic.

Though it has been amended several times, the primary thrust of the law remains the same. Namely, the Ohio Director of Health has sweeping powers to issue orders during a medical crisis.

"That portion of the law (cited by Acton) hasn't been invoked in a long time," Romanchuk told Richland Source. "Now it has the attention of the legislature and the legislature believes there needs to be oversight (in the future)."

Romanchuk said the bill would require the executive branch of the state government to come to the legislative branch and "tell us their story, why they enacted those powers. That's a good thing."

Under the bill's provisions, the governor's office would have to meet with JCARR, a committee comprised of five members from the House and five from the Senate. In its current configuration, Republicans would have three of the five members from both the House and Senate.

Orders from the state health department that lasted longer than 14 days would trigger a review. The bill would require three of the five members from each chamber to allow the order to stand.

Larry Obhof 3

Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof, a Republican from Medina County whose district includes Richland and Ashland counties.

Obhof told Richland Source he didn't know for sure when the Senate would take up the amended bill.

"We will take a look at it. None of us saw the amendment until it was introduced into the (House) committee today," Obhof said. "We have had some conversations about changing the statute. This (bill) changes the process, not the statute."

Obhof said the longer-term questions that need to be answered pertain to what powers the executive branch has during a health crisis, how broad those powers should be and what restrictions the legislature should place on those powers.

"We shouldn't do (process) without the other," he said. "Our goal is to get Ohio open again as soon as possible, hopefully within the next week or two. In many ways, we're already doing that.

"That should be the focus of our legislative action."

Obhof said hospitals and other medical facilities have already resumed elective procedures and that manufacturing and office workplaces are already re-opened with new safety rules in place. He said retail outlets would be opened Tuesday, though he pointed out those stores could serve customers now by appointment.

Obhof said an announcement was expected later this week on when businesses like dine-in restaurants and hair salons will be able to re-open.

The senator from Medina County also pointed to the Senate's 33-0 approval Wednesday of a bill that authorizes distribution of $350 million of federal CARES Act funding to local communities across Ohio for COVID-19 pandemic-related expenses.

This funding will be made available to counties, municipalities and townships for necessary expenses associated with the current public health emergency and will be distributed based on the proportion of Local Government Fund revenue allocated to them in 2019.

“Senate Bill 310 provides much needed relief to our local governments,” Obhof said. “Our communities have been on the front lines of protecting Ohioans during coronavirus, and this crisis has certainly put an unexpected drain on their resources and people.”

The funding authorized today excludes Ohio’s six jurisdictions with populations over 500,000 because they already qualify for a direct payment from the CARES Act. That list includes the city of Columbus and Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Montgomery and Summit county governments.

Municipalities and townships within these counties, however, are still eligible for the funding.

The legislation passed with an emergency clause, making the bill effective immediately upon being signed by the governor.

"These resources are crucial," Obhof said. "Among other things, this funding will be used for additional testing, which is critical to getting people back to work as we reboot Ohio's economy."

Obhof said he was frustrated the federal funds come with restrictions that only allow the money to be used for expenses related in some way to COVID-19. The state's city and county budgets will be harmed due to the loss of income and sales taxes during the shutdown.

"We hope we have more flexibility by the next disbursement," Obhof said.

The bill now moves to the Ohio House for consideration. 

City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"