Here’s what to expect from the Ohio legislature in 2024

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio General Assembly passed only 16 new laws in 2023, hitting a decades-long low.

Now as state lawmakers head into 2024, they’ll be under even more of a time crunch to get legislation passed, as many of them turn their focus to this year’s spring primary and fall general elections.

There are still many top-tier issues left for the Republican-led Ohio General Assembly to address before the current two-year session ends Dec. 31, including potential revisions to Ohio’s new voter-passed law legalizing recreational marijuana, a sweeping higher-education reform bill aimed at combatting perceived liberal bias on college campuses, and preventing state and local officials from enforcing federal gun laws.

Some new priorities are also on the horizon, including a new capital budget that is likely to provide billions to local and regional construction projects.

Here’s more on what to expect from the Ohio Statehouse this year.

Veto overrides

Lawmakers’ main focus entering 2024 wasn’t on introducing new legislation, but working to override Gov. Mike DeWine’s veto of two measures passed last year – one on transgender restrictions, the other on preventing cities such as Columbus from banning flavored tobacco sales.

On Jan. 10, the Ohio House voted to override DeWine’s veto of House Bill 68, which aims to ban transgender athletes from playing high school and college women’s sports and prevent minors from receiving gender-affirming care. The Senate is likely to follow suit on Jan. 24.

Republican lawmakers say the legislation is needed to protect children from making irreversible changes to their bodies and give a level playing field to female athletes. DeWine, a Republican, joined Democratic lawmakers in arguing – among other things – that preventing Ohio children from receiving gender-affirming medical treatment will lead many of them to take their own lives.

Separately, the House voted last month to override the governor’s veto of a provision in the state’s massive two-year budget bill that would prohibit local bans on flavored tobacco. If the Senate now follows suit, the measure would void existing bans on flavored tobacco in at least three cities: Toledo, Columbus and the Columbus suburb of Bexley.

GOP lawmakers say the measure is supported by the business community and will create jobs. Opponents, including DeWine, say flavored tobacco helps get children addicted to nicotine.

Marijuana reforms

After Ohio voters passed a law legalizing recreational marijuana last November, DeWine and Senate President Matt Huffman called for swift action by lawmakers to make major changes to the law, from raising the state tax on cannabis sales to expanding Ohio’s DUI law to include marijuana.

However, lawmakers left Columbus for the holidays without passing any changes, mainly because House Speaker Jason Stephens has taken a slower approach to the issue.

Stephens told reporters last month that he’d like to approve changes to the marijuana law in January. “The sooner the better,” he said at the time. However, the speaker said last week only that lawmakers will “eventually” pass some marijuana reforms, noting that the permitting process for dispensaries to sell recreational marijuana to the public won’t be set up for several months.

State Rep. Jamie Callender, a Lake County Republican who’s been the House’s lead negotiator on marijuana reforms with the Senate and governor, said last month that all sides had agreed on some changes, such as restricting advertising aimed at children and rewording home-grow rules so they don’t inadvertently allow larger-scale grow operations. However, it remains to be seen what – if anything – lawmakers will do about marijuana tax rates and potentially rerouting that tax revenue to things like law-enforcement training and away from a planned social justice fund.

Ethics education for lawmakers

More than six months after ex-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder was sentenced to 20 years in prison for overseeing the largest bribery scheme in state history, Ohio lawmakers haven’t passed a single piece of legislation to change state ethics or campaign-finance law.

While both Republicans and Democrats have introduced ethics reform measures, there’s no sign they will go anywhere before the current session ends.

However, Huffman, a Lima Republican, said last summer that by the end of 2024, he would like the Ohio General Assembly to pass legislation that would take a “more proactive” approach to help legislative candidates and lawmakers understand ethics and campaign-finance laws.

“The fact that you got elected doesn’t mean, ‘Now I know all the laws of the state of Ohio,’” Huffman said. “There’s a lot of errors on campaign-finance reports because someone gets their uncle who was the treasurer at the Knights of Columbus to do their report, and he doesn’t know what the law is either.”

No such legislation has been introduced so far.

Higher-education reforms

Last May, the Ohio Senate passed a sweeping, Republican-authored bill aimed at curbing liberal influence at state colleges and universities. That legislation, Senate Bill 83, would – among other things – force those schools to add to their mission statements that they don’t favor or disfavor any political, social or religious beliefs, create publicly funded non-liberal think tanks at five public universities, ban faculty and staff from striking; prohibit mandated diversity training; and require annual faculty performance evaluations and post-tenure reviews.

While the money for the think tanks was approved as part of the latest state budget, the rest of SB83 has stalled in the House since then, even after Cirino reluctantly agreed to remove the language to prohibit faculty strikes. Stephens has said the legislation, as written, doesn’t have enough House votes to pass.

Cirino told Gongwer News Service last month that the House might make some additions to the legislation as it takes the bill up again in 2024, such as measures designed to address anti-Semitism on campus.

Capital budget

Ohio lawmakers are already working toward putting together a new capital budget that appropriates billions of dollars in state money to fund construction projects, renovations, equipment purchases and various programs around the state for the next two years.

Capital budgets are usually non-controversial bills passed by state lawmakers in the spring of every even-numbered year. This year’s capital budget, though, will have an additional $700 million in surplus cash for one-time projects that was appropriated in last year’s main operating budget.

Gun policy

House Bill 51 aims to have Ohio join at least 17 other states in deeming itself a “Second Amendment Sanctuary State.” In practice, that would mean state and local authorities would be prohibited from helping to enforce any federal laws or rules regarding guns or ammunition. Any state or local agency that doesn’t fire workers who violate that ban would face civil penalties of $50,000 per employee.

Gun-rights advocates say HB51 would ensure that state and local officials couldn’t be commandeered into enforcing federal firearms regulations and would instead only enforce Ohio gun laws, which GOP lawmakers have significantly loosened in recent years.

Groups representing law enforcement, prosecutors and local officials in Ohio have vocally opposed the legislation, saying it would hamstring their ability to work with federal officials to prevent and solve crimes, as well as create unintended consequences such as making local governments more wary of hiring military veterans and former federal agents who had to enforce federal gun laws in their old jobs.

In November, Stephens predicted the House would pass the bill by the end of the year, though that didn’t end up happening. If the House does pass it, it would go to the Senate for consideration.

Ending term limits

During a meeting with reporters, Stephens on his own brought up the idea of a state constitutional amendment to end legislative term limits, which voters passed in the early 1990s.

Right now, members of the Ohio House and Senate can each serve for only 8 years in a row, after which they can’t run again for four years. In practice, several lawmakers have remained in the Statehouse without interruption by ping-ponging back and forth between House and Senate every 8 years.

It remains to be seen whether Stephens will actually push for such an amendment to be passed by lawmakers to be put before voters. No proposed amendment has been introduced so far.

Term limits are generally popular with voters, but support for them may have eroded after Ohioans last August defeated a measure that would have made changing the state constitution much harder.