Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed a bill Tuesday that could have made it more challenging for local health departments to implement COVID-19 restrictions and require masks.
Until this legislative session, Holcomb had used his veto powers only twice. Now he’s used it three times this year alone, just the latest sign of disagreement between the Republican legislative supermajority and Holcomb.
Senate Bill 5 would have required any local health orders more stringent than Holcomb’s during an emergency to be approved by the local legislative bodies and, in the case of local cities, by the mayor.
Holcomb argued this act would “restrict necessarily flexibility in the law, and further undermine local responses to future public health emergencies.”
“(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,” Holcomb said in his letter to Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray.
Senate Bill 5 also would have allowed people to appeal local health department actions to the local legislative body during an emergency.
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’s veto led to celebration among public health officials in St. Joseph County.
“Important support for public health!” Dr. Mark Fox, the county’s deputy health officer, tweeted in response to the news.
“This is wonderful news,” said Heidi Beidinger-Burnett, president of the county Board of Health. “We need people who have education and experience in working at and with health departments making decisions, and I believe our governor understands that because of his experience working with the state health dept in this time of COVID.”
Beidinger-Burnett and other public health officials said they feared putting emergency orders in the hands of elected officeholders would lead to decisions driven by politics rather than science.
But supporters of the bill have said unelected health officers have overstepped by issuing mandates with no say from voters.
“I think the elected officials should have a say in what happens,” St. Joseph County Commissioner Derek Dieter previously told The Tribune. “The doctors, on paper, are supposed to know the facts, but if you’ve followed this thing, since day one, there’s been shifts in the data and facts that are reported.”
Dieter, a Republican, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Tuesday evening. But, he’s been critical of the decision to extend the county’s mask order through May 27.
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 need only 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.
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.
Beidinger-Burnett said she hoped lawmakers who voted to strip power from health departments would reconsider after Holcomb’s veto.
“For the folks who voted for that bill, what I really hope is the veto gives them pause to say, ‘Why is our governor choosing to veto this?’” she said. “Is there something he knows or understands about the bill that they didn’t understand or know?”
Tribune staff writer Christian Sheckler contributed to this report.