Dave Yost has warned about a “power grab” by “unelected private attorneys” representing cities and counties in their lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. The attorney general views the attorneys as seeking to control the distribution of public money from a settlement. Yet it appears Yost is the one grabbing for power and money. The vehicle is proposed legislation that surfaced Tuesday, giving the attorney general exclusive authority over lawsuits of “statewide concern.”
Fortunately, on Tuesday, Mike DeWine voiced his dismay with the proposal.
The governor called the legislation “unfair” and “a serious mistake.” He cited the fallout of the opioid crisis, in which more than 22,000 Ohioans have died from overdoses since 2010. “If you look at how our services are delivered in Ohio,” the governor explained to reporters, “and if you look at who has borne a great deal of the cost, what you’ll find is that local government has borne a great deal of that cost. This is something that we should allow to proceed through the court system.”
That means going forward with the nearly 2,000 lawsuits of cities and counties across the country pending in the federal courtroom of Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland. Summit and Cuyahoga counties are serving as the bellwethers, a trial scheduled for October. The thinking is a comprehensive settlement will land. In this regard, the governor made another telling point — that any such settlement would account for harm to the state.
Usurp the local role? At this point in the proceedings, DeWine reiterated, “it would be unfair to our local government partners who have borne such a heavy part of this burden.”
What would the Yost-backed legislation do? State lawmakers would gain authority to allocate 90 percent of the settlement money, with the remainder split evenly between the attorney general’s office and private attorneys representing the cities and counties. The legislation calls for at least 20 percent going directly to local jurisdictions. It also bars local governments from bringing future lawsuits of this type.
County prosecutors criticized the bill as an infringement on their authority. For cities and counties in general, the measure is galling. Consider, again, recent history in Ohio. The state has grabbed local resources, from slashing the Local Government Fund to reneging on pledges to reimburse revenue lost to tax cuts. More, the state has eroded home rule, curbing the power of local officials to address such problems as gun violence and speeding motorists.
Neither was the state much help as the opioid crisis deepened. State officials did act to reduce the flood of prescription opioids. As heroin and then fentanyl brought their wreckage, which continues today, local communities largely have been on their own.
Again, they are reluctant to trust the state.
On Tuesday, a judge in Oklahoma held Johnson & Johnson responsible for its role in fueling the opioid crisis there, ordering the company to pay the state $572 million. An earlier settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, brought $270 million. Another with Teva resulted in $85 million for Oklahoma. That’s $927 million for a state that has seen 6,000 overdose deaths since 2000. In other words, Ohio appears in position to receive a substantial settlement sum, news reports this week indicating Purdue Pharma has entered discussions.
It follows that those communities at the front in this crisis are best placed to decide how to allocate resources devoted to recovery. The attorney general stresses the sovereignty of the state. More compelling is the actual experience of cities and counties. They face the damage up close. They deserve better than a power grab.