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Indiana governor vetoes bill limiting local health orders

(Supplied/Gov. Eric Holcomb)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP): Indiana’s governor vetoed a bill on Tuesday that would limit the authority of county or city health departments by allowing local elected officials to block public health orders issued during emergencies.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb wrote in a veto message that the ability of local health officials to act quickly has been critical to the state’s COVID-19 response. The governor said he believed it was “prudent to avoid any unnecessary disruption or wholesale changes to our existing local public health authorities.”

“Right now it is critical that we maintain our local health expertise, flexibility, and all the tools needed to respond,” Holcomb said. “We must not do anything that jeopardizes 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.”

Legislative Republican supporters said the bill was meant to provide a “check and balance” protecting the rights of business owners following complaints about COVID-19 orders closing or limiting businesses.

The bill would require any local public health orders more stringent than one issued by the governor to go before elected county commissioners or city councils for approval. Holcomb’s coronavirus-related executive orders over the past year have allowed local officials to establish tougher regulations — an authority he frequently cited in defending his decisions lifting various statewide travel, crowd size, and business restrictions.

The state Senate voted 37-12 and House members voted 65-29 in favor of the bill two weeks ago. Indiana legislators can override Holcomb’s veto by a simple majority vote in both chambers, with that action potentially taking place during a one-day meeting next week.

Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said in a statement that he believed the bill “created another productive check and balance on our government.” Bray said he would discuss the veto with fellow Republican senators before deciding what to do next.

Legislative Republicans voted last month to override Holcomb’s veto of another bill giving themselves more authority to intervene during statewide emergencies declared by the governor. Holcomb has filed a lawsuit against the Legislature, arguing that the new law violates the state constitution.

Some medical and health organizations opposed the county health authority bill, arguing against shifting authority away from public health professionals to local elected officials who largely don’t have such experience. Supporters say it only applies to local actions issued under an emergency and not to orders issued against an individual business or resident over matters such as health code violations.

Democratic state Rep. Rita Fleming of Jeffersonville, an obstetrician and gynecologist, called the bill “dangerous” during debate in the House. She compared allowing local elected officials to block county health orders to those officials allowing a dangerous bridge to remain open over the objections of engineers because of complaints from businesses.

“They may be virtuous people but they’re not epidemiologists,” Fleming said of elected officials. “They don’t understand vectors and incubation periods.”

The bill would also give local elected officials hiring authority over local health officers and create 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.

Holcomb said there were “only rare instances” of local health officials and elected leaders not working closely together during the coronavirus outbreak. The governor’s letter said that while the current focus was on COVID-19, other illnesses such as rabies, HIV, Legionnaires’ disease, and meningitis could demand immediate public health action.

“One reason Indiana has weathered the storm so well is due to coordination with local health experts and the flexibility in law to be fast, nimble and targeted,” Holcomb said.

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