Ohio legislature’s ‘to-do list’ isn’t shrinking even though time running out


By Anna Staver - Columbus Dispatch



COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio’s lawmakers and lobbyists are starting to get nervous.

The legislature has a long list of priority bills to pass but not a single one has been approved.

The goal at the start of 2020 was to work until summer and pass changes to Ohio’s gun laws, lower certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors, legalize sports betting, revamp school funding and pass a capital budget that doles out money for local projects like parks, bike trails and zoos.

And those were just the major pieces of legislation.

Traditionally, the state offered scholarships (i.e. vouchers) to families in poorly performing public school districts. The problem was how the state decided which schools were “failing.” The list of districts with voucher-eligible schools grew from 40 in the fall of 2018 to 139 in 2019 and around 400 — nearly two-thirds of all districts in the state — for the 2020-21 school year.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that the list of more then 1,200 schools was far too long.

“Here in the Senate we’re focused, as we have been, on doing what we think is best for the children of Ohio and their families,” Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, told reporters after a meeting with Gov. Mike DeWine and House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford.

The three Republican men met to talk about school vouchers and what Obhof described as “a whole host of different issues.”

“It was good to get together and start or re-start some of these conversations,” Obhof said.

But he wouldn’t try to guess when there would be a deal. All Obhof would say is that he has no plans to pass another extension. If there’s no deal, then about a third of Ohio’s school buildings will be voucher-eligible starting April 1.

“I’m hopeful that once we get a clear resolution on the EdChoice Scholarships behind us, it will be full speed ahead for (Senate Bill) 3,” Sen. John Eklund said.

The Chardon-area Republican sponsored the measure, which would reclassify certain drug-possession felonies to misdemeanors. People caught with cocaine, for example, would get a misdemeanor while people caught with fentanyl would face felony charges.

He’s hopeful — but not certain — that his bill will make it out of the Senate “within a month’s time” of the voucher deal.

What Eklund isn’t certain about is whether his bill to legalize sports betting or the House’s version will pass in time for Ohioans to place bets on the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals or Ohio State Buckeyes this fall.

The two chambers agree that both college sports betting and mobile betting should be legal, but they can’t agree on who should be in charge. The Senate bill puts the Ohio Casino Commission in charge while the House bill gives oversight to the Ohio Lottery Commission.

One area where both Obhof and Householder appear to be in agreement is in opposition to the governor’s proposed reforms to Ohio’s gun laws. Both men have said they worry that Senate Bill 221 could infringe on gun owners’ Second Amendment rights.

The STRONG Ohio bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, changes three main areas, increasing penalties for certain gun crimes, creating a voluntary background-check program for private sales and expanding civil commitment or “pink slip” laws to include a process for removing firearms from their owner.

“I’m hoping that we get a few more hearings,” Dolan said. “I’ve been working with some interested party groups, and I know the governor has been working with them. … If there’s a will, we could get it done.”

The one bill everyone agrees will pass in the coming weeks is the capital budget. It’s the roughly $2.6 billion budget for capital construction projects across the state. Most of it goes to roads, bridges, schools and other projects, but about $150 million will be marked for community projects like zoos, running trails and parks.

“I feel pretty good about the work we have done over here internally,” Obhof said when asked about the budget. “We’re going to keep communicating with the House and with the governor and hopefully be able to get something underway pretty soon.”

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By Anna Staver

Columbus Dispatch

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