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Indiana General Assembly votes to override Holcomb's veto of Senate Bill 5

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Posted at 4:37 PM, May 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-10 22:10:24-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana General Assembly voted Monday to override Gov. Eric Holcomb's veto of Senate Bill 5 — an action that could take away powers from local health officials.

The Indiana Senate voted 36-10 to override Holcomb's veto of Indiana Senate Bill 5.

The Indiana House then also voted to override the veto.

Senate Bill 5 has to do with pandemic restrictions at the local level that the legislature passed to target local health departments.

It was part of a push by some Republican lawmakers who were upset that mask mandates and restrictions on businesses lasted so long during the pandemic. They were especially upset at restrictions on houses of worship. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding crowded and poorly ventilated indoor spaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The bill allows city councils or county commissions to override any pandemic restrictions are imposed by local health departments more strict than restrictions from the state. The bill also says a local order may not take effect, or remain in effect, unless the order is approved by a county council.

Because the bill took effect immediately, local orders more strict than restrictions from the state are considered void until approved by a county council in places with a county health department, or city council in places with a city health department.

During Monday's Indianapolis City-County Council meeting, the council voted to approve a proposal to ratify the local health orders.

"Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Marion County Public Health Department has worked closely with local, state, and federal officials, as well as partners in health, education, and the many sectors of our economy, embracing best practices and smart public health policies while preserving and protecting our local economy to the greatest extent possible," Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, said in a statement. "The ability to make quick decisions at a local level is critical to protecting Hoosiers during a public health crisis."

Last week, Holcomb explained he vetoed the bill because he didn't want to jeopardize the flexibility of local health officials as the state continues to recover and more Hoosiers get vaccinated.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, said the measure would ensure local elected officials have a say in restrictions imposed on their communities.

"I would have hoped that such sweeping change could wait until we gathered all the relevant experts and stakeholders to strike the right balance regarding local health authority during emergencies and avoid discouraging laudable service in the field of public health, especially knowing that it’s locally elected officials who appoint the local department of health board that hires the local health director in the first place," Holcomb said in a statement released after the votes.

You can read statements in response to the votes below:

Gov. Eric Holcomb:

As I said last week, Indiana is in an economically enviable position due in large part to the heroic local response to the pandemic that was permitted by a system rewarding speed, collaboration and medical expertise in a time of health emergency. In most cases, the cooperation between local elected officials and local health officials was superb.

I would have hoped that such sweeping change could wait until we gathered all the relevant experts and stakeholders to strike the right balance regarding local health authority during emergencies and avoid discouraging laudable service in the field of public health, especially knowing that it’s locally elected officials who appoint the local department of health board that hires the local health director in the first place.

My administration will do just that over the coming months to supply the legislature with up-to-date data before the next regular session.

Indiana Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville:

SEA 5 brings important balance with regard to personal freedoms and public health. Since the onset of the pandemic, Gov. Holcomb has relied on his advisors – including his state-level public health officer – to provide him with the information he needs in order to make decisions on how to lead our state. SEA 5 creates the same setup at the local level and allows action to be taken quickly if needed. We fully expect our local leaders to heed the advice of those with expertise around them, including local health officers. However, our local elected officials were elected to lead their communities, just like the governor leads the state, and those local officials are ultimately accountable to the voters.

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers:

Senate Enrolled Act 5 simply requires locals to adhere to the same approach in regards to issuing public health orders as what currently happens on the state level. Our elected governor takes recommendations from appointed state public health officials and ultimately decides the appropriate course via an executive order. Through this new law, the local legislative body must approve any appointed public health official's orders when they are more restrictive than the state's orders. Also, the law creates an appeals process for businesses who are ordered by a health department to pay a fine or shut down. Hoosiers have made it clear that they want an opportunity for their voices to be heard through their elected officials when restrictions can have significant and long-lasting impacts on individuals, businesses and communities. This law brings better balance to the local process while continuing to prioritize public health and safety.

Indiana Senate Democratic Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis:

When the state is dealing with a public health crisis, the last thing we need to do is tie the hands of local health departments and prevent them from putting essential health measures in place. Local health officials have the best understanding of the scope of health emergencies in their communities. To intentionally put up barriers that make it difficult for them to implement necessary health protections, is big government overreach that is very dangerous.

After the year we just had, I really don’t know how those on the other side of the aisle can move to strip local health officials of their power to establish health protections. Health experts should have the ability to rely on their training and expertise to make decisions on the best way to confront crises in their own communities.

In the time it takes health officials to get an emergency order approved by their local city council or county legislative body, which is mandated under SEA 5, lives could be lost. When there is a crisis, decisions oftentimes have to be made immediately and without delay. Under this legislation, it will be that much harder for health professionals in our state to help us effectively navigate and combat emergency health situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

This Republican infighting and politicizing of health decisions must stop. These political games and acts of retaliation against anyone who dares make a decision without first consulting the supermajority is going to lead to the unnecessary and avoidable loss of Hoosier lives.

Indiana Senate Assistant Democratic Leader Eddie Melton, D-Gary:

This legislation is yet another example of the supermajority taking away local control. When we’re dealing with a pandemic or other health emergency, local health officials are the best and most knowledgeable among us when it comes to recognizing the best approach to combat that crisis.

Health experts have the training and expertise to make decisions in the best interest of public health during emergencies, and they shouldn't be restricted or delayed by the General Assembly from doing what they know is best. Putting up bureaucratic red tape, requiring health professionals to go through a legislative body before they can move forward with safety measures, is a dangerous roadblock that will likely result in a delay in action and lives lost.

It’s disappointing to see the supermajority take such a regressive and harmful step—even as we continue dealing with a pandemic that has killed thousands of Hoosiers. Political games like this are not beneficial to anyone, and it’s unfortunate that the residents of our state will be the ones to pay for bad public policy like SEA 5. The public health and safety of Hoosiers is a top priority for my caucus, and we will continue to fight against the insertion of big government and politics in health decisions.

Indiana State Senator J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis:

Once again, we are called on to referee a food fight between Statehouse Republicans and the governor. I'm disappointed that we were called back, barely two weeks since wrapping up our regularly scheduled session, to override the governor's veto of SEA 5 under the guise of passing a technical corrections bill. We sure are starting to act like a full-time legislature.

Undoing this veto means undoing the important work our public health officials have done to keep us safe this past year. Overriding this veto will have consequences, whether they be intended or unintended, and those consequences will have an immediate impact on the vitality of our communities.

I support and value the work of experienced public health professionals and follow the science. The bottom line is this: my colleagues do not want to follow the public health orders put into place by responsible leaders. Wearing masks has saved more lives than we will never even know. I simply cannot jeopardize Hoosiers' lives, and that's why I voted to sustain the Governor Holcomb's veto.

Indiana State Senator Shelli Yoder, D- Bloomington:

I supported the governor in his decision to veto this bill because it's a dangerous overreach of power by the state legislature. Local governments know best what is happening in their communities, and the state shouldn't be stripping back their authority to lead when the next crisis hits. Our health decisions should be science-based; they shouldn't respond to the political climate. Local government officials are elected to lead when governing is most difficult, and I don't think we should be stripping them of their ability to lead their communities out of a crisis.

It's disappointing that the Indiana Republican Party's in-fighting is carrying over into the way our local communities govern themselves. Indiana Republicans this session have been consistently unable to decide who should lead during a crisis. The on-going lawsuit involving the governor, the General Assembly and the Attorney General reflects that, as does this veto override.

Ultimately, the reason I opposed this bill during normal session, and why I oppose making it law now, is that this bill will cost Hoosier lives. Gary's Health Commissioner, Dr. Roland Walker, said it clearly when he came to the Statehouse to testify against this bill: 'People will die. People will die. People will die.'

We participate in democracy together, and we cast ballots in elections together, to form governments that can lead us during crises and prioritize our safety when selfish actions don't align with the public good. That's why, today, I voted to support the governor's veto: because this bill puts lives at stake during future emergencies by stripping away enforcement power from local officials.

Indiana State Senator Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, released a statement saying in part:

By overriding Governor Holcomb's veto of SEA 5, we are stripping away power from local health departments and the local elected officials who appointed them. These officials were elected and appointed to lead in these exact types of emergency situations because of their local expertise and knowledge of public health. I support the governor, I support Dr. Box and I support all local health departments who worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic to collaboratively do what's best for Hoosiers.

Indiana House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne:

House Democrats have listened as local health officials stated their cases against this bill; we’ve listened as our very own Rep. Rita Fleming, a retired doctor, spoke during session about why this bill was a bad idea, and we’ve listened as Governor Holcomb explained his reasoning for vetoing this dangerous legislation. It’s simply irresponsible to continue to work against the opinions of those who know best how to navigate public health emergencies.

The scariest part of this bill is the way it would slow down statewide orders and, in effect, slow down Indiana’s recovery from this deadly pandemic. We all want to get through this as quickly as possible, but freezing restrictions against the expert guidance of the Indiana State Department of Health and the governor isn’t the answer.

The process of overturning the governor’s vetoes has been a popular move by Republicans this year; Senate Bill 5 being the third override this session. Senate Bill 148, for which veto the General Assembly overrode earlier this session, was the first veto overridden since Holcomb assumed office in 2017.

It should be emphasized that these overrides are not common practice, and it’s a shame that so much time has been wasted on bills that will probably do Indiana more harm than good at the end of the day," GiaQuinta added. "Our job as legislators is to listen to our constituents and adhere to the guidance of experts when we draft and pass legislation. We feel our colleagues have turned their backs on that and have forced through legislation that will risk the safety of Hoosiers across Indiana.

Indiana State Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis:

Our 'part-time legislature' reconvened amid a global pandemic not to aid an overtaxed public health system, but instead to add additional undue burdens to local public health officials. While professing 'small-c' conservatism, the Republican supermajority continues to work against their own governor. They will hamstring city and county officials trying to act quickly to save lives. The veto override of Senate Enrolled Act 5 is a sad day for the Indiana General Assembly as Hoosiers continue to die from COVID-19 while inoculations lag.

Drew Anderson, spokesman for the Indiana Democratic Party:

Another day, another moment where the Indiana Republican Party is showing Hoosiers they'd rather prioritize extreme partisanship and their ongoing civil war than actually improve the lives of our state and its families. Hoosiers are looking for responsible government, and Democrats have been delivering for them - starting with the American Rescue Plan. Indiana Democrats will continue to look after the safety and future of Indiana while the Republicans fight with themselves to the detriment of working Hoosiers.

This story will be updated.