Lawmakers act on judicial elections, school grades, and tolls

·4 min read

Jun. 23—COLUMBUS — The days of candidates for Ohio Supreme Court and district appeals courts appearing on the November ballot without partisan labels are likely numbered — one way or another.

The state House of Representatives on Wednesday voted 57-38 to pass House Bill 149, which would end Ohio's practice of having higher-level judicial candidates running in partisan spring primaries only to appear without party identification on the general-election ballot.

The Senate has already separately passed a similar measure sponsored by state Sens. Theresa Gavarone (R., Bowling Green) and Jerry Cirino (R., Kirtland), and such language has also been inserted into the proposed two-year state budget nearing final votes.

Meanwhile, across the Statehouse rotunda, the Senate passed bills to overhaul the state's controversial report-card system for K-12 schools, allow students to opt out of taking national standardized college admission exams, and prepare for a new era of electronic toll collection on the Ohio Turnpike.

Democrats argued that the sudden interest in party labels in Ohio judicial elections comes after Republicans lost three of four Supreme Court seats in the last two election cycles despite performing well for statewide office elsewhere on the ballot.

Democrats are within a single seat of capturing a majority of the seven-member bench for the first time in decades.

It also comes as a battle for Supreme Court chief justice looms in 2022 with powerful political names. New Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner, a former secretary of state, has announced her candidacy while Justice Pat DeWine, son of Gov. Mike DeWine, and Justice Sharon Kennedy are expected to compete in the Republican primary.

"So long as we are choosing an election process for selecting our judges, we certainly can be honest with the voters and let them know the party affiliation that each candidate has selected," said state Rep. D.J. Swearingen (R., Huron), sponsor of the bill with state Rep. Brian Stewart (R., Ashville).

"If we believe that judges can achieve neutrality in the face of money, endorsements, fund-raisers, and contributions, then a letter next to their name on the ballot should not make a difference," he said.

Ohio is currently the only state with partisan primaries and non-partisan general elections.

State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney (D., Cleveland) accused Republicans of hand-picking judicial races.

"Under this bill, Ohioans would be more likely to see justice as political rather than solely based on the rule of law," she said. "...While I obviously disagree with party labels for any judicial candidate, there is simply no good reason for putting partisan labels on some judicial candidates and not others. This is going to cause more confusion for our voters."

The bill is opposed by legal groups like the Ohio Judicial Conference and the Ohio State Bar Association. A handful of House Republicans also joined Democrats in voting "no."

Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, a Republican, had proposed doing the opposite, getting rid of partisan labels during primaries in addition to the general. But her proposal failed to gain traction.

SCHOOL REPORT CARDS

The Senate voted 31-1 to revamp how Ohio grades the performance of primary and secondary schools.

The overhaul was added to House Bill 82, sponsored by state Reps. Jon Cross (R., Kenton) and Don Jones (R., Freeport). That bill would allow parents or guardians of high school students to opt them out of taking standardized college admission assessments.

The revised bill would replace the current A-F letter grade system for school buildings with a five-star rating system. It would mostly maintain components in current law that determine a rating, but would change how they are calculated.

State Sen. Andrew Brenner (R., Powell), chairman of the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee, said the new system would also allow for half-stars to indicate improvement or trends on the part of schools.

"The idea behind this is to try to show what schools are doing so that we can improve the schools and not try to harm them or anything," he said.

The bill must return to the House for approval of the Senate changes.

TURNPIKE TOLLS

With the Ohio Turnpike slated to switch to a new electronic toll system in the spring of 2023, the Senate voted unanimously to set up a process through which the commission could go after those who evade payment.

That could include denial of vehicle registrations and transfers by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles if tolls remain unpaid 60 days after the mailing of a reminder notice.

The turnpike commission plans to create dedicated electronic-toll lanes at certain plazas where tagholders would drive through at highway speeds, while those still using cash or credit cards would be directed through toll booths. The registered owner of any vehicle using the electronic-toll lanes without a transponder would be billed by mail based on a digital reading of the vehicle's license plate.

Senate Bill 162, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Reineke (R., Tiffin), would establish a process through which vehicle owners could challenge billings via an internal turnpike administrative hearing process. The administrative decision could then be appealed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.

The bill now goes to the House.

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