Columbus, Ohio – The 133rd Ohio General Assembly wrapped up its term with a flurry of lame-duck activity last week, closing out a challenging year of legislating amid a global pandemic.
Lawmakers hurried to get priority bills passed and sent to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk for a signature before the two-year term ended. There were, however, a number of major legislative projects that did not get passed.
Here are some of the priorities falling to the 134th General Assembly, which starts in January:
What to do with House Bill 6?
After months of deliberation about House Bill 6, lawmakers have decided to punt any repeal or replacement effort to 2021.
HB 6 is the $1.3 billion nuclear bailout bill at the center of what has been called the largest corruption scheme in state history.
In the days after Speaker Larry Householder and four other political operatives were arrested in July, one thing was clear: Ohio lawmakers needed to do something about the tainted bill.
DeWine, who signed the bill into law in 2019, called for its repeal. Householder was removed as House Speaker. His replacement, Rep. Robert Cupp, R-Lima, said one of the first priorities of his speakership would be addressing HB 6.
Cupp did create a new “House Select Committee on Energy Policy and Oversight,” which met nine times between September and December to hear testimony on various attempts to repeal HB 6.
Members could not come to an agreement on how to best approach HB 6; some wanted a full repeal, others wanted only certain portions replaced and a few defended the whole bill as being good public policy, even if it did come about through sordid means.
Two of those involved have already pleaded guilty in federal court; the cases against Householder and two others are ongoing.
Householder was reelected to another term and it remains to be seen if the chamber will take a vote in 2021 to expel him. When Cupp was elected as speaker in July, he indicated such a vote would wait until after the new term starts.
School spending reform will take more time
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled the state’s school funding model was unconstitutional back in 1997. Decades later, lawmakers are still working to figure out a constitutional and equitable substitute.
A bipartisan funding overhaul passed the House in early December, but did not make it through the Senate.
Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, wrote in a December letter “there is not enough time in the legislative session for the Senate to have the in-depth hearings this bill deserves.” Dolan suggested the new formula could be passed as a piece of the next state budget, which will be decided in the first half of 2021.
Republicans still concerned about pandemic authority
For all the condemnation leveled against Ohio’s pandemic response by Republican lawmakers in 2020, the legislature achieved little this year in the way of curbing the government’s executive powers.
Between May and December, Republicans introduced numerous bills targeting the pandemic authority of the governor and the Ohio Department of Health (ODH). Only a few of them passed, and DeWine followed through on a pledge to veto any bill restricting ODH’s ability to issue health orders meant to stem the spread of COVID-19.
DeWine vetoed a bill over the summer which would have reduced the penalties for violating a public health order. Lawmakers did not seek a veto override.
More recently, DeWine vetoed a bill to prevent ODH from issuing widespread quarantine orders (it also would’ve given lawmakers authority to vote down any public health orders). Despite protests and pressure from conservative lawmakers to override the veto, such a vote was not taken during the lame-duck session.
Late in the term, lawmakers debated efforts to make future health orders more fair to business owners, should they be necessary. At other points this year, legislators said they wanted to address the state’s pandemic authority for future crises beyond the coronavirus. Those efforts may come up again in 2021.
Campaign finance and election reform
These were two hotly-debated topics this year in large part because of the presidential election cycle and the House Bill 6 scandal.
As the Ohio Capital Journal has reported, lawmakers proposed a wide array of improvements to the state’s election system over the past term — from automated voter registration to online absentee ballot requests. Some legislators expressed worry about approving reforms during an election year, which may provide an opportunity for reforms to be heard during an “off year” like 2021.
The HB6 scandal involved allegations of bribery money being funneled through “dark money” groups in order to influence Ohio elections and public policy. These groups are registered nonprofits which are not required to disclose who funds them.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, whose office oversees campaign finance in the state, came out in favor of improved transparency when it comes to “dark money groups.” He supported legislative efforts which followed Householder’s arrests to require such groups to publicly disclose their financial activity.
A bipartisan bill proposing reforms to the state’s campaign finance system did not receive a hearing in 2020, but these efforts may carry over to the new term.
Split opinions on criminal justice reform
There was much attention paid to the legislature’s work to reform the Ohio criminal justice system, with plenty of disagreements leading to mixed results.
Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1, which expands access to drug treatment programs in lieu of convictions and broadens the description for criminal records that may be sealed.
A separate bill to reclassify low-level drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors passed the Senate last June, but was not taken up for a vote during the House’s lame-duck session. The bill sought to divert drug offenders into treatment rather than criminal punishment.
Despite bipartisan support in the Statehouse and among civil rights groups, the bill remained controversial among law enforcement groups and prosecutors. The Ohio State Bar Association came out against the bill, arguing in testimony that some drug offenders “must have serious consequences hanging over their heads like the threat of a felony and prison time” in order to commit to a treatment program.
Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Twp., a supporter of the bill who will serve as Majority Floor Leader next term, told The Cincinnati Enquirer that work will continue in 2021 on criminal justice reform.
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.