Ohio lawmakers mark halfway point in legislative session

·7 min read

Dec. 27—COLUMBUS — Like it or not, Ohio lawmakers may have the gift of a recreational marijuana bill waiting on their desks when they return to the Statehouse from the holidays.

Which bill eliminating the need for a license to carry concealed handguns will the Republican-controlled General Assembly send to a governor still waiting for his gun access reforms?

With the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision in doubt before the U.S. Supreme Court, several bills are waiting that would further restrict access to abortions, and the Senate will have to choose between the House and Gov. Mike DeWine over whether to prohibit vaccine mandates.

The return of lawmakers to the Ohio Statehouse in January marks the halfway point of the current two-year legislative session.

Complicating matters is the fact that 2022 is an election year in which every statewide office from governor to treasurer, control of the Ohio Supreme Court, all House districts, and half of state Senate districts will be at stake. And in the middle of all of it could be a federal corruption trial of former House Speaker Larry Householder, who is accused of allegedly masterminding a $61 million bribery scheme funded by FirstEnergy Corp.

MARIJUANA

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have introduced bills to legalize marijuana for recreational use, but there's been no major push to move them forward.

A group calling itself the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is trying to force the issue, using the initiated statute process to directly put such a bill in lawmakers' laps when they return in mid-January.

If lawmakers don't act within four months, the bill's backers could gather a new round of signatures of registered voters to directly put the question on the November ballot.

Already trying to head the issue off, the Senate recently passed a bill to expand upon Ohio's existing medical marijuana program to address concerns raised over the program's three years of operation. It would expand the list of conditions eligible for treatment with medical cannabis, expand the size of cultivators, and increase the number of retail dispensaries. But smoking and home-growing of marijuana would remain illegal.

CORONAVIRUS

As it has been for the last two years, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is likely to continue to be a major political player.

The Senate has a decision to make about House Bill 218, which passed the lower chamber in November but without the numbers needed to override the veto that Mr. DeWine has threatened. The bill is designed to make it easier for Ohioans to sidestep vaccine mandates from businesses, schools, colleges, and government entities as a condition of employment or service.

"There's opposition from folks who think it's not strong enough in our caucus, and a lot of folks on the outside who think it's a bad bill because of that," Senate President Matt Huffman (R., Lima) said. "There's also opposition from business groups who think we shouldn't be doing this at all."

He said he has constitutional concerns about the bill's application to private religious institutions, primarily schools.

"I think it's significant that the governor said that he would veto it in its current form, and certainly what we do with public institutions is different from private...," he said. "I think there's still a lot of work to be done."

To a large extent, it has been Democrats who have defended the Republican governor's coronavirus policies.

House Minority Whip Paula Hicks-Hudson (D., Toledo), the third highest-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said science should dictate the state's response to coronavirus.

"We should not be politicizing this whole idea of vaccines, not politicizing what an employer can do for a safe working environment," she said. "The legislature's majority members are pursuing reckless legislation. Our numbers are surging. Ohio, at the beginning, was looked at as the model. Now we're looked at as a laughing stock, and it's not a laughing matter."

GUNS

By the close of 2021, both the Senate and House had separately passed bills to do away with the requirement that someone carrying concealed handguns must also carry a license to do so.

With that license comes a background check and eight hours of mandatory firearms training.

One of the first actions upon return to Columbus is likely to be a decision as to which bill to send to Mr. DeWine. The governor has complained that his fellow Republicans have refused to enact gun-access reforms he proposed after the 2019 mass shooting in a downtown Dayton entertainment district. Despite that, he has signed other bills expanding gun rights.

"The gun violence epidemic, not just in Ohio but throughout the United States, isn't by a person who is simply carrying a gun...," Mr. Huffman said. "The vast majority of people who carry firearms — I do not [carry] — are acting legally."

Ms. Hicks-Hudson, however, said Ohioans want "sensible" gun reforms.

"They want the red-flag legislation," she said. "They want to close the loopholes that allow for people who should not have access to guns to have them. I feel strongly about safe gun storage."

ABORTION

Just before the holidays, Mr. DeWine signed another bill expected to restrict access to surgical abortions.

Senate Bill 157 would make it a first-degree felony for a doctor who, in the process of an abortion, delivers a live baby and fails to take all steps to preserve the infant's health.

It will also make it harder for two southwest Ohio abortion clinics to renew variances that have allowed them to continue operating without written agreements in place with local hospitals for the transfer of patients during emergencies. The bill prohibits them from substituting physicians for the hospital if those doctors are employed by or affiliated with a medical school tied to a public university.

Most attention these days is based on bills pending in the General Assembly that have yet to pass.

Lawmakers have before them the so-called "trigger ban" to outlaw most abortions should the high court overturn Roe vs. Wade and give the green light to tighter restrictions by states.

Republicans have already passed a law that would allow most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable — as early as six weeks of gestation, but it has been placed on hold by the courts. Current law generally prohibits an abortion after 20 weeks.

ELECTION REFORM

Former President Donald Trump carried Ohio by more than 8 percentage points, so it has not been on the receiving end of his false allegations of a stolen election.

But that doesn't mean Ohio lawmakers aren't looking at election reforms — and fighting over whether they rise to the level of suppressing the vote.

"I think somebody is tinkering to fix a problem that doesn't exist," Ms. Hicks-Hudson said. "This whole idea of modernizing elections should not at any time shorten the time frame for a person to register and vote ... I used to be an elections official, so I know how difficult it is to prepare for an election. They are professionals. Considering the value of the vote, we should be looking at ways to expand the right to vote, not restrict it."

Proposals on the table include limiting the number and location of drop boxes for absentee ballots, ending in-person early voting on the Monday before Election Day, and moving up the deadline for requesting absentee ballots from three days to 10 to allow more time for their return.

"Each time that we talk about election reform there's people doing backflips out on the front lawn and they think it's terrible," Mr. Huffman said.

CAPITAL BUDGET

With the two-year general fund budget behind them, expect lawmakers to again turn their sights on a two-year capital budget, a perennial gift bag of bricks-and-mortar, equipment, and technological improvements across the state.

Largely fueled by borrowing, the last plan contained $2.1 billion in projects for schools, government buildings, colleges and universities, and local public works projects. Most of the attention was focused on the $185 million that was earmarked for competitive local community projects such as zoos, museums, convention centers, and theaters.

Mr. Huffman predicted passage in May.

First Published December 27, 2021, 8:00am