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Holcomb rejects bill limiting local health department actions in third veto of session

Holcomb rejects bill limiting local health department actions in third veto of session


U.S. Senator Mike Braun says he recommends individuals get a COVID-19 vaccine but hasn’t decided if he will. “It should be up to the individual.” Indianapolis Star

Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed a bill that could have made it more challenging for local health departments to implement COVID-19 business restrictions and require masks.

Until this legislative session, Holcomb had only used his veto powers twice. Now he’s vetoed legislation three times this session alone, just the latest sign of discord between the Republican legislative supermajority and Holcomb, a fellow Republican.

Throughout the pandemic, Holcomb allowed cities and counties to enact more stringent restrictions than his own, a power that Indianapolis especially found necessary to use. 

Senate Bill 5, though, would have required restrictions from those local health departments to be approved by their local legislative bodies and, in the case of local cities, by the mayor. 

In Indianapolis, that means the city-county council and Mayor Joe Hogsett. Opponents to the bill worried that adding that extra level of bureaucracy would cause unnecessary delays in times of emergency. 

Holcomb agreed, arguing in his letter on the veto that the legislation would “restrict necessarily flexibility in the law, and further undermine local responses to future public health emergencies.”

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“(Local health officers) and their departments must frequently make urgent, complex decisions to safeguard public health where time is of the essence and expertise is critical,” Holcombsaid in the letter, which was addressed to Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray. 

Holcomb also argued the legislation could have far reaching impact beyond the COVID-19 pandemic with other illnesses.

“Right now it is critical that we maintain our local health expertise, flexibility and all tools needed to respond,” Holcomb wrote. “We must not do anything that jeopardized this as our heroic local health officials remain critical in the months to come as we accelerate our recovery and work to vaccinate many more Hoosiers.”

Senate Bill 5 also would have allowed people to appeal local health department actions during an emergency to the local legislative body. Likewise, a health officer would need approval from a legislative body to go to court to enforce an order if needed, another step opponents worried could slow the process.

The bill also required local legislative bodies to approve the appointment of health officers, and enabled them to remove them for good cause.

Holcomb criticized those provisions as well.

Local health officials had widely condemned the bill as it moved through the legislative process, but the discussion became much more relevant after Holcomb ended the statewide mask mandate and all business restrictions in April, after months of pressure from conservative lawmakers.

Local communities were the ones left making decisions on what restrictions should be required to limit the spread of COVID-19. Some communities, including Marion County, opted to continue their mask mandates. Health advocacy organizations worried this legislation would hinder local officials’ ability to make those informed decisions rapidly without political pressure.

Lawmakers who supported the measure, however, argued the bill in fact was pro-local control.

“This language is not a knee-jerk reaction or a combative response to any enforcement action,” said bill author Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown when the Senate approved the legislation April 21, “Senate Bill 5 simply creates a structural check and balance on a position that has unparalleled authority under these emergency orders.”

Because lawmakers only recessed and did not officially adjourn when they finished their business last month in order to redistrict in the fall, they could come back at any time and override Holcomb’s veto. They would only need a simple majority to override it. 

The final version of Senate Bill 5 passed the House by a 65-29 vote, and passed the Senate by a 37-12 vote.

Will lawmakers override veto?

When asked by IndyStar, Bray, a Martinsville Republican, did not indicate whether lawmakers would move to overturn the veto.

“My caucus and I felt that SEA 5 created another productive check and balance on our government,” Bray said in a statement to IndyStar. “I have only just learned of the veto and will discuss the matter with my caucus before we decide how to proceed.”

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Holcomb had already vetoed two measures this year: one that would allow the General Assembly to call itself into a special session and another that would have increased labeling for ethanol fuel at gas stations

The former veto was overridden before lawmakers left the Statehouse last month. Last week, Holcomb filed a lawsuit asking a Marion County judge to stop the law regarding the special session, an action he took over the objection of Attorney General Todd Rokita.

Holcomb thinks the state constitution only allows the governor to call lawmakers into session. Lawmakers, though, think they can call what they termed a special session. 

It was clear from the beginning of this session that Holcomb and lawmakers were not entirely on the same page. Early on, they voted to override a veto from the 2020 legislative session that prohibited local units of government from regulating most aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship.

Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.

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Published at Tue, 04 May 2021 21:57:25 +0000

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