Holcomb vetoes bill that would cut power of local health officials

  • Comments
  • Print

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 residents 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.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

15 thoughts on “Holcomb vetoes bill that would cut power of local health officials

    1. Legislature could have ended the emergency order at any point during their session. Why didn’t they?

    2. I thought Republicans were about supporting local control?

      The Governor is more Republican than those corrupt power grubbing fake Republican buffoons in the General Assembly—all of them need to be kicked out of office.

  1. 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.” How can anyone seriously disagree with that? We are fortunate to have him .

  2. Much of Covid has been uncharted territory. Now that we know more about the disease and how it effects us all bodes that the approach to it should have been much different than what was inflicted on businesses and individuals for a disease with a 99%+ survival rate. This is what i believe the legislature is wanting to address. In future to have logical approaches to medical situations. We killed flys with a sledgehammer with our states approach. Fortunately clearer heads are starting to emerge.

    1. The legislature is wanting to address being anti-science and anti-knowledge. That’s it. The solution isn’t to give unelected officials who don’t even believe in science veto power over health officials, it’s to elect smarter legislators than those we currently have.

      A reminder that Republicans fighting restrictions did so based on fatality numbers that were wildly off. Remember when we were told there was no way 50,000 people would die of COVID in America? How’d that prediction turn out?

      It’s really easy to say that in hindsight we should have done A or B but everyone did the best they could based on what they knew at the time. That is how science works. Churches got restricted because the first major superspreader event in America was … at a church, as was a major event in Korea.

    2. You can take your 99% survival rate and shove it wherever you feel appropriate. A 1% mortality rate is still 10 times deadlier than the flu, and over half a million Americans are dead because of Covid-19. If everything had remained completely open throughout the pandemic there’d probably be 1-2 million dead Americans. Your “logical” approach isn’t based in science. You also completely discount the millions of Americans that now have long term health problems from contracting Covid-19 when they were otherwise healthy. Seriously, get a grip on reality. We take our shoes, belts, etc off because of 9/11 whenever we go to the airport. That was only roughly 3,000 people killed and caused a permanent change in policy. Get over the temporary restrictions that jeopardize your “liberty”. Come back to reality and realize that the government is responsible for keeping it’s populous safe and healthy.

    3. The legislation would undermine local control, not strengthen it. The only “flies” the General Assembly members know about are the dollar bills that fly into their pockets from big business and special interest groups to buy their votes. They don’t care about public health or welfare, or the ordinary citizen in the least.

      Also, the survival rate of Covid-19 is misleading. First, it ignores the many individuals now suffering from serious long-term health consequences following a Covid infection. There are also the nearly 600,000 Americans who have died in just over 13 months from Covid.

      Second, the big issue is that neither the state nor the country as a whole had adequate ICU beds to care for Covid infected patients (or those suffering from some future pandemic infection). If you will recall hospitals were often overwhelmed with sick patients, which meant not just people with Covid, but many people sick with other serious issues could not get the care they needs. And, this was with what you misleading call the “sledgehammer” approach. Had the approach been more hands off, our entire healthcare system would have collapsed or come close to collapsing, as you saw happened in some other countries.

    4. Exactly. Its now over a year and what is trying to be addressed is the “open ended,” “no end in sight” approach that the Governor and others have used. Emergency orders or powers are for just that and not extended over and over with no oversight. Even though the Indiana economy has made great strides toward recovering, the extended shutdowns and severe measures absolutely killed off certain parts of the economy that will take years, not months to regain.

    5. Neil, the Legislature could have ended the emergency orders at any point during their session. Why didn’t they? I’ve asked this repeatedly and not one person has bothered answering. Odd, that.

      We chose to kill off portions of the economy by refusing to assist them like most other countries did. The virus was the issue, not the restrictions. You assume that without restrictions the portion of the population that takes the virus seriously would have just continued going out to eat, etc.

  3. We did not elect local health officials to office, we elected local mayors and council members to lead us. The local health officials serve the elected leadership and advise them on appropriate actions when necessary. This is a simple matter of “chain of command”. To grant authority for local health officials to override decisions of elected leadership is another step down the path of setting aside the will of the people who vote for who they want to lead them. Ignoring election outcomes is currently in style but is leading us into greater conflict with one another. In this case, fear is driving the narrative. Fear of health risks, disease and ultimately death when something like a pandemic takes place. Our elected leaders understand risk/benefit decisions. We elect them to appoint qualified, competent specialists, like local health officials, to advise them on the best course of action. Then it is up to them to consider not only that advice, but many other sources of information, to make the best decision. If local health officials want to call the shots they can run for office.

  4. Does anyone know of a politician who is looking to the best interest of the people they serve as opposed to “what will get me the most votes”? They are elected. If they want that responsibility, then they should be held liable under the law if they are wrong and many are harmed. The health people are appointed based upon education and experience. I think they can make the proper decisions to benefit the most in their area. The governor made a correct decision in his veto.

  5. Personally as a Republican, I’m glad he vetoed the bill. Do I want a bunch of politicians deciding what’s best for public health or public health officials? Most legislators have proven they aren’t actually very smart nor have their constituents best interests at heart. Glad to see a governor who isn’t afraid to break from party lines at times!

  6. Pragmatically, to me it appears the bill in the future will be restricting MORE liberty… it only applies to actions local Boards take to make more restrictive than a Gov exec order.

    If this bill becomes law, instead of laying a low bar of restrictions, like Gov Holcomb has done compared to most other Govs around the Midwest, and then letting Marion, etc address the density considerations individually,.a future Gov would be inclined to make the tougher restrictions statewide, so they don’t get overridden locally.