What Ohio lawmakers will likely focus on this fall

Banning vaccine mandates and critical race theory in schools top Republican-fueled agenda.

Redistricting, sports betting, COVID-19 vaccines and critical race theory are high on Ohio legislators’ priority lists when the General Assembly reconvenes Wednesday, Sept. 15.

Legislators are required to pass new maps for Ohio’s congressional districts this fall. The state will lose one of its 16 U.S. House seats due to sluggish growth reported by the 2020 census.

If the General Assembly doesn’t approve new district lines with three-fifths of each chamber and at least half of each party caucus by Sept. 30, a seven-member redistricting commission must draw them by the end of October for legislators to approve no later than Nov. 30.

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The Ohio Redistricting Commission is assembling maps of state House and Senate districts, which it must approve by Wednesday, Sept. 15.

Separate from redistricting, legislators will probably try to change the state’s election laws, said Mark Caleb Smith, associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University.

“We’ve seen this pop up in other states where Republicans are in control,” he said.

Republicans hold supermajorities in the state House and Senate. Several other states are tightening voting security measures.

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Smith also expects legislators to act on prohibiting vaccine mandates and banning critical race theory in schools.

“Those hot-button culture war kind of issues like critical race theory, like vaccine mandates and election reform, those have been really popular,” Smith said.

Holdover issues from previous sessions should also be dealt with soon, said Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima.

“We of course need to resolve the sports gambling issue, one way or another,” he said.

State Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., agreed.

“That’s been looming for too long,” he said.

State Sen. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, sponsored Senate Bill 176, which passed the upper chamber in June and will come before the House this fall. It would allow separate licenses for three types of gambling: mobile apps, brick-and-mortar locations, and machines in bars and restaurants. Gambling revenue would be taxed at 10%, with 98% of that money going to K-12 schools and the remaining 2% for programs to combat gambling addiction.

The House also has an alternative version. Antani expects sports betting in some form will win final approval quickly.

Huffman also wants to address a “variety of vaccine questions.” He opposes requiring COVID-19 vaccines for employees of private businesses or at public schools, and said unvaccinated students who had already paid college tuition should get their money back if the school then mandated vaccination. Several pending bills seek to block all or most vaccination and masking requirements.

Economic priorities

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce held its biennial policy retreat for House and Senate last week. Both parties were welcome, but several legislators didn’t attend because they were busy with redistricting, said Sen. Bob Hackett, R-London.

“One of their priorities is a top priority of mine,” he said. “Their No. 1 priority is they want to bring solvency into the unemployment system.”

When Ohio and other states borrowed heavily from the federal government to fund unemployment payments during the Great Recession, federal officials were patient about repayment, Hackett said. But that can’t be expected in the aftermath of COVID-19 unemployment, for which the state also borrowed, he said. Ohio will have to repay that money with interest, and rebuild its Unemployment Trust Fund.

The state was able to use federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds to make up some of the current deficit, Hackett said. But that may not be available again.

“Otherwise, starting the next year, businesses would have to pay $1.5 billion to build that (trust fund) up again,” he said.

The state chamber’s other major priorities included clearer laws on the ballot initiative and referendum process; cutting property taxes; and codifying local tax authority on people working from home, Hackett said.

Local school funding is heavily dependent on property tax revenue, and schools are slated to get more in the next two years, Hackett said. He proposes supplementing school funding from a different revenue stream — perhaps sales taxes — in order to cut property taxes.

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As for home-based workers, COVID-19 drastically changed people’s work locations, Hackett said.

“If they work from home, that’s where the tax should be paid,” he said. “The problem with that is doing it overnight.”

An immediate change would mean a big revenue loss for many of Ohio’s major cities, as workers have shifted to suburbs or rural areas.

Hackett said he’s also “pushing hard” to strengthen penalties for distracted driving. Ohio is only one of four states that treat it as a secondary offense, meaning police can’t stop drivers solely for that reason, he said. Hackett wants that to change.

The Dayton Chamber of Commerce is working with state Sen. Vernon Sykes D-Akron, on legislation to help minority businesses, such as enabling blanket certification across municipalities for licensed professionals, said chamber Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Stephanie Keinath

That and other legislation to improve internet connectivity for workers in underserved areas and expanding financial credits for technical training would help Ohio businesses recover from COVID-related slowdowns, she said.

The Dayton Region Priority Development & Advocacy Committee, organized by the Dayton Development Coalition, in February prioritized 76 projects seeking state or federal funding. Forty-four of those are listed as “priority,” expected to have the greatest impact:

  • Six defense-related projects totaling $64 million in funding sought, topped by a $17.2 million request from Air Camp Inc. for the Air Camp & Educational Outreach Complex;
  • Eleven related to economic development, totaling $20.9 million, with a $5.5 million request for the American Veterans Heritage Center as the largest;
  • Four health and human services projects totaling $4.8 million, including $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Club of Dayton;
  • Nineteen quality of life projects totaling $16.6 million, topped by $2.6 million for building and art preservation at the Dayton Art Institute; and
  • Four transportation and government services projects totaling $3.2 million, with $2 million for the city of Dayton’s Flight Line rails-to-trails project as the largest.

Race and education

“You’re going to see a lot on critical race theory,” Antani said.

Critical race theory, or CRT, is the decades-old concept that racism is not just individual prejudice, but is built into legal and social systems. It has become a hot-button issue nationwide, with drives in numerous state legislatures to ban it. Many educators have denounced the bans as a distraction from legitimate issues and an attempt to suppress all discussions of racism.

Two proposals, House Bills 322 and 327, seek to ban public schools from teaching so-called “divisive concepts.”

“What we should teach in schools should be fact-based. It should be knowledge-based,” Antani said. “Critical race theory is a biased theory against a class of people that will result in our schoolchildren holding these incorrect biases.”

Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association and a social studies teacher from Worthington, said any such bans are superfluous.

“It is telling that those ginning up these concerns can’t point to a single instance of it actually going on in Ohio classrooms,” he said.

The OEA, which represents more than 120,000 teachers and other education professionals, has talked informally with the anti-CRT bills’ sponsors, and remains “very concerned” about the bills’ consequences, DiMauro said.

“These bills are simply trying to tell professional educators how to teach and our kids’ educations will suffer,” he said. “It’s time for politicians to stop trying to score cheap political points with our kids’ education. They’ve gone through enough during the last 18 months.”

Criminal justice, other initiatives

Plummer’s HB 4 already passed the House, and he’s working on Senate passage, he said. He’s cosponsoring it with state Rep. Susan Manchester, R-Waynesfield.

It would require public agencies to share information on cases of suspected child abuse or neglect, create an ombudsman’s office to handle complaints by children or families involved with any child service agency, and let anyone who reports suspected abuse get an update on the investigation.

Huffman said state legislators have enacted several criminal justice reforms in the past few years, giving judges more leeway to expunge or seal records. Continuing that effort is one of his major priorities.

“Part of that is the bail reform bill that’s currently in place,” Huffman said. Twin bipartisan bills introduced to the House and Senate in May would replace the current cash-bail system with one based on people’s ability to pay.

Credit: Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Credit: Andrew Welsh-Huggins

He’s also seeking some change to the public benefits system, notably dealing with the “benefits cliff” — when someone quits or refuses a job because doing so would mean losing greater value in public benefits. That either-or conundrum should be eased, Huffman said.

Democratic priorities

State and congressional redistricting are Senate Democrats’ top priority, according Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights. They’ll also press for stronger measures against COVID-19.

“In order to save lives and slow the spread of the harmful Delta variant, we must increase vaccination rates and encourage mask wearing, not pass legislation that would prevent schools and businesses from keeping students, workers and families safe,” he said via email.

Democrats would deal with reported worker shortages by improving employee safety and requiring a living wage, according to Yuko.

“Finally, we can’t give up on the fight for common-sense gun reform legislation,” he said. “It’s time for us to finally do something to keep Ohioans safe by keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”

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