The GOP-dominated Legislature again defied Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb on Monday, overriding his veto of a bill that will undo some local health restrictions in Indianapolis and some other cities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
After two hours of debate, the Senate voted 36-10 along party lines to overturn the veto of Senate Enrolled Act 5. The House quickly followed suit, voting 59-30 for the override.
The bill now becomes law, immediately wiping out any local orders to wear masks, set permitted capacity in bars and restaurants, or attendance caps at events.
That’s because those restrictions already have been lifted by the governor and, under the legislative measure, local health departments can’t adopt more stringent orders without first receiving approval from the local legislative body.
In Indianapolis, however, the City-County Council could vote to reinstate the city’s more restrictive orders as early as this evening. Other counties with health orders more restrictive than the state include Monroe, Tippecanoe and St. Joseph.
The veto override is part of an ongoing battle between the governor and fellow Republicans over who should have the most control during public health emergencies.
The Legislature earlier overrode Holcomb’s veto of a bill that weakened the governor’s powers during health emergencies. The governor has sued the Legislature, claiming the law is unconstitutional.
Throughout the pandemic, many Republicans have been unhappy when local officials sometimes imposed stricter conditions than the state during the pandemic, saying it hurt businesses, such as florists and barbers. The governor allowed local officials to make those decisions.
Many Democratic lawmakers said Senate Enrolled Act 5 weakens the authority of health officials, who need to act quickly during emergencies.
Sen Jean Breaux, a Democrat of Indianapolis, called the bill a “power grab” that takes away control from health officials and state leaders.
“I feel like we’re in the middle of Republican civil war,” she said.
Sen. Chris Garten, Republican of Charlestown, author of the bill, said local health officials need a check on their power. In some cases, he said, health officers have closed businesses during the pandemic, and those decisions have led to bankruptcy, increased mental health issues “and even suicide.”
“This legislation would ensure that the local elected officials, who are chosen by the people of a particular community, to serve and represent the interests of that community, have a seat at the table when determining policies that may be so far-reaching that they could trigger unintended, unforeseen consequences.”
Sen. Mike Gaskill, Republican of Pendleton, said the bill does not take away local control.
“We’re involving more people in the decision making, and we’re more likely to get a better result,” he said.
But some Democrats said that public health officers were only doing their job in protecting public health during an emergency.
“The argument that public health officials are the reason why businesses are shutting down … is not accurate,” said Sen. Fady Qaddoura, Democrat of Indianapolis. “It’s called a pandemic, that only happened almost 100 years ago and unfortunately we’re experiencing it again.”
He called the bill “heavy handed” and “anti-public health.”
Health officials from dozens of counties had urged the Legislature not to override the governor’s veto. Holcomb vetoed the bill last week, saying it would undermine the balance between public health and the livelihood of Hoosiers.
Some say the law could delay the actions of local health departments during emergencies, such as closing an unsafe restaurant or swimming pool during an emergency.
The law would allow local elected officials, few of whom have medical or health training, to overrule orders issued by a city or county health department during a public health emergency.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea that we’re now going to allow local, non-expert politicians to override these urgent, complex decisions,” said Sen. Tim Lanane, Democrat from Anderson.
Under the new law, a citizen or business affected by an order also could appeal the enforcement action directly in circuit or superior court or appeal to the legislative body that imposed the restriction.