LIMA — What was going to be Allen County’s big day at the Statehouse on Monday has been scaled back due to COVID-19.
Only a small group of people will be allowed to take part during the swearing-in ceremonies in Columbus of new Senate President Matt Huffman and Speaker of the House Bob Cupp, both Republicans and both from Allen County.
It will mark the first time the two leaders of the Senate and House hail from Allen County. And for Huffman and Cupp, the historic day also will be the beginning of the biggest challenge of their political careers.
Year two of the coronavirus finds businesses still scrambling to stay afloat and consumers hesitant to spend. Hospitals have been besieged with an unending number of virus patients. And while the state’s unemployment rate has dropped to 5.7% from an April high of 17.6%, under-employment remains an issue.
It doesn’t end there.
The two legislative chambers failed to reach an agreement on school funding after what appeared to be a solution by the House. A summer of racial unrest saw windows of the Statehouse and businesses being broken out and a state of emergency declared. If that wasn’t enough, their own legislature was rocked by a bribery scandal that’s being called the biggest in Ohio history.
To put it bluntly, 2020 wasn’t a pretty picture for Ohio.
At age 70, Cupp brings with him the reputation of being a champion of collaboration, while the 60-year-old Huffman is known as a skilled negotiator. Both are highly respected in Allen County. It’s where they grew up — Cupp developing his work ethic on a farm outside of C0lumbus Grove, and Huffman being the fifth of nine children of a hard-charging prosecuting attorney. Allen County is also the place the two chose to raise their families and where they first began to carve out their political careers — Cupp as a county commissioner and Huffman as a Lima city councilman.
“We’ve known each other for about 35 years. We’ve talked at least weekly about the different things that are going on and some of the preparation that needs to be done for next year,” Huffman said when the two sat down on separate occasions with The Lima News in December.
The fact that the new Senate president and the House Speaker are actually talking to each other is a step forward in today’s world of Ohio politics.
“The former speaker and the current soon-to-be former president of the Senate apparently hadn’t talked in months, and so that was a problem,” Cupp said. “The House and Senate are going to have policy differences, we know that. And no matter how long Matt and I have known each other, it won’t go away. But I’m sure we’ll be communicating with each other on a very regular basis with an attitude of solving pro0blems.”
More notably, Huffman and Cupp are now holding weekly conferences with Gov. Mike DeWine, a practice that used to be common between legislative leaders and the governor, but one that also went by the wayside.
“We’ve restarted all of that … to remove the communication blocks,” Cupp said. “The governor will talk about what is on his agenda, what his issues are. I’ll do the same for the House and Matt for the Senate. We’ll see if we can all focus on the same thing. If we do have differences, what are they, and can we work through them.”
Make no mistake, they don’t agree on everything.
The most contentious issue between the House and Senate will likely revolve around school funding. In early December the House approved the Fair School Funding Plan by an 84-8 vote. It came after three years of extensive research, collaboration and improvements from school treasurers, superintendents, finance experts and both Republican and Democratic House members. Yet, it never received a vote from the Senate, which felt it wasn’t allotted enough time to review the legislation before the end of the year.
Cupp called the defeat of the legislation “disappointing.” Huffman said it was necessary. Both said they believe a funding plan can be worked out in 2021.
Remaining on the sidelines during the discussion was a silent governor’s office.
Cupp and Huffman’s relationship with DeWine has been one of respect, but it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Legislators have been upset with the restrictions DeWine and the state health commissioner have implemented on residents and business owners during the pandemic. The latest came Thursday when Health Director Stephanie McCloud extended to Jan. 23 a provision that encourages people to stay at home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.. unless they are working or engaged in an essential activity.
This fall the legislature passed a bill that put constraints on the powers of the health director and governor, only to see their action receive a quick veto.
“There are issues regarding how we make public health decisions,” Huffman said. ” Many states have legislative oversight panels.”
“We are disappointed with the governor’s veto,” he said. “We had a balanced and reasonable plan that would provide appropriate legislative oversight of these health orders, and ensure Ohioans’ voices are heard and their rights protected.”
A dark shadow
One of the first things both Cupp and Huffman will do is to make committee assignments. That will come under a dark shadow for Cupp. He became the leader of House on a historic July afternoon which saw the chamber, by a 90-0 unanimous vote, remove Rep. Larry Householder from the position. Earlier that day, the fiery Householder was formally indicted for his role in an alleged $60 million bribery scheme.
Cupp didn’t make any changes in committee assignments at that time, explaining he was “trying to disturb things as little as possible.” He’s now taking a new look at how the committees will be structured and says he plans to reset things. The question is what to do with Householder, who while stripped of the speaker’s position, had no opposition on November’s ballot and was easily re-elected over write-in candidates in Eastern Ohio’s Coshocton and Perry counties.
If convicted of the crime, Householder would be automatically removed from office. Otherwise, he would have to be expelled or impeached to be removed.
Cupp acknowledged impeachment is on the table — “it’s going to be considered, yes, yes” — but noted some members of the House believe it is best to let the criminal process play out before taking action.
“The honorable thing for him to do would be to resign,” Cupp said of Householder.
The road ahead
The immediate task for lawmakers during the next six months will be to hammer out a new operating budget for state fiscal years 2022-23. It will be done under the “unknowns” of the pandemic, something not lost on Huffman, a hard-line fiscal conservative.
”I think that the fundamentals of our economy are pretty strong. This is not like 2008. It’s not like other recessions in the the late 70s and early 80s, and certainly not like the Depression,” Huffman said. “I have an optimistic belief that by the spring of 2021, most people will want the vaccine and will have been vaccinated. To whatever degree the economy is shut down, it will change.”
He has talked with owners of small businesses and says many are adapting.
”Lots of businesses will have been permanently changed, especially small businesses,” Huffman acknowledged. “But I think the real financial freedom and ability to control your life and do the things that you want will return. The situation for people who are struggling now, for whatever reason, is going to change. That’s not an idea that originated with me. There are a lot of other people who think the same thing,”