The Indiana General Assembly voted May 10 to override Gov. Eric Holcomb veto, which now sets limits on local health departments’ powers.

Indiana’s public health officials had warned about unintended consequences in their ability to issue and enforce emergency health orders if changes in Indiana Senate Enrolled Bill 5 went through.

The bill, which was crafted primarily as a check in response to COVID-19 restrictions, stated that a local order regarding an aspect of a declared emergency addressed by an executive order could not exceed the latter. A health order also couldn’t go into effect if no executive order on the matter was in place.

“SEA 5 brings important balance with regard to personal freedoms and public health,” according to a written statement from Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray. “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.”

State Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, who’s also assistant majority caucus chair, released a written statement that read in part, “I appreciate what the appointed local health officers across our state have done in the face of the pandemic, but it’s critically important we have elected officials making the final decisions in the communities they serve. When religious liberties are limited, family businesses are being closed and fines are being imposed on Hoosiers for simply living their lives, structural checks and balances need to be in place – SEA 5 is exactly that. I’m confident this policy will improve public accountability by giving elected officials greater oversight in these difficult decisions.”

Drew Anderson, spokesman for the Indiana Democratic Party, in anticipation of the veto override, sent out a statement ahead of the General Assembly vote that read, “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.”

Holcomb, in a May 4 letter to Bray, explained his reasoning for vetoing the measure, including how well economically Indiana has come through the COVID-19 pandemic and stated among his reasons for the veto that local health officials must “use localized data to tailor their decisions to their community’s needs. ... 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.”

The bill had among its co-authors State Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne; Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle; Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange; Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn; Sen. Justin Busch, R-Fort Wayne; and had among its sponsors Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne.

The Indiana General Assembly passed the bill before adjourning the last week of April.

Dr. Jeremy Adler, the Tippecanoe County health officer and representative of the Indiana State Association of County and City Health Officials, and Susan Jo Thomas, past president of Indiana Public Health Association and executive director of Covering Kids & Families of Indiana, issued a joint statement that read, “We are extremely disappointed in the Indiana Legislature’s decision to override Gov. Holcomb’s veto of Senate Enrolled Act No. 005. This legislation is a dangerous overreaction to life-saving measures taken by local health departments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Indiana’s local public health officials must now face even more hurdles to protect the health and safety of their communities. The impact will be immediate and unnecessary lives will be lost. We simply cannot understand why our own legislators would choose to put more Hoosiers in harm’s way.

“Our state’s primary problems regarding public health have little to do with decision-making authority. At a foundational level, Indiana lacks the infrastructure necessary to properly carry out its public health functions. We rank 48th in state funding for public health, which leads to a lack of resources, insufficient staffing and less desirable health outcomes for our population.

“We hope that this legislation will be reconsidered in the future. Our 1,300+ local health department employees, as well as thousands of other doctors, nurses, public health professionals and hospital leaders are more than willing to collaborate on meaningful efforts to improve public health in Indiana.”

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