What employer lets its $60,654-a-year workers take off five straight months, jet off for an international junket, come into the office for several days to plow through a mountain of work and then take a long holiday break?
Answer: Ohio taxpayers.
For those who aren’t closely watching the Ohio General Assembly, here is how 2016 unfolded, particularly the furious last legislative voting days.
OUR COVERAGE DURING LAME DUCK SESSION
Lawmakers met in voting sessions less than 20 times between January and May. The House and Senate went on break just before Memorial Day and each chamber held just one voting session – Aug. 2 for the House and Sept. 28 for the Senate – before returning to the business of making laws after Election Day.
Earlier this month in just six voting days of the “lame duck” session, lawmakers passed more than 50 bills. Current legislation is required to pass before the new year or it has to come back in the next session. Lawmakers who won election in November take office in January.
Make no mistake, the lawmakers were dealing with weighty issues that touch the lives of Ohioans. Bills covering assisted suicide, concealed weapons on college campuses, abortion bans, housing discrimination, chronic school truancy, property tax breaks, pawnbroker and towing service regulations, mandatory insurance coverage for children with autism, minimum wages and more flew through the Legislature.
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The fast-and-furious schedule stacked committee meetings on top of one another, leading double booked legislators to dash between hearings and miss public testimony. In some cases, public testimony was abbreviated or skipped all together and bills passed in the dark of night, or early morning. And several bills got folded into other bills for the sake of expediency or vote whipping.
Off-topic bills becoming more common
The Ohio Constitution has long mandated that bills address single subjects. But that is routinely flouted. Take for example, Senate Bill 331, which addressed pet store regulations, minimum wages, bestiality, micro wireless equipment and cockfighting, or Senate Bill 235, which covered climbing walls, pawnbrokers, property taxes and backyard chickens.
“The total ignoring of the one-subject rule is rampant,” said ACLU of Ohio Director Christine Link. “Government done in the dark isn’t government, it’s oppression.”
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Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley, a Democrat, was among local government officials to raise the alarm when lawmakers were poised to pass a gun bill that would’ve let concealed weapons permit holders to carry guns in nearly any government building that lacked security checkpoints. It was a last-minute twist added to an existing bill.
Debate on that and another gun bill stretched until 3 a.m. on Dec. 9.
“This thing popped up on our radar out of the middle of nowhere – this gun amendment. That’s the problem. How do we fight this thing that came out of nowhere?” Foley said, noting that adding and staffing security checkpoints to buildings would have cost Montgomery County $4 million a year. “It’s indicative of making public policy in the bottom of the ninth inning. And it doesn’t let any of us – local government or the public – say that’s not the way to do it.”
“Ohio legislators get paid too much for a part-time job that frankly hasn’t provided Ohioans with much of a return on their investments,” said Matt Mayer of Opportunity Ohio and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “We’d be far better served by a legislature that meets for six months every other year, got all of their work done, and went back to their full-time jobs. We’d save money, focus their attention on key issues, and likely end up with fewer burdensome laws. Lame duck sessions should be eliminated — get the work done when in general session and move on.”
The Ohio Senate canceled two scheduled voting sessions in November when nine senators and three staffers, including the staff videographer, went on an eight-day trade and economic development trip to Israel sponsored by the National Jewish Federations of North America. Senate press secretary John Fortney said the cancellation was for other reasons.
Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, who traveled to Israel, defended how he scheduled the workload. He said holding more voting session days throughout the year would not have allowed lawmakers to avoid the last-minute cram sessions.
“I mean, our legislative schedule is not unlike what we have done. We’ve had similar legislative days. This is an election year. You’ll always see this flurry of activity at the end of the year. I don’t think it’s any different than other years,” he said.
He may be right.
After the November 2014 elections, Kasich signed 55 bills, compared with 140 signed January 2013 to November 2014. After the general election in 2012, Kasich signed 52 bills, compared with 149 in the time leading up to lame duck.
But in 2010, then Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, only four lame duck bills were signed and 54 bills passed in the time leading up to it. Strickland signed 43 lame duck bills in late 2008 and 128 bills passed January 2007 to November 2008.
Lame duck sessions provide “Special interest goodie giveaways”
“Unfortunately, lame duck sessions are notorious for producing bills that host all kinds of special interest goodie giveaways that don’t benefit taxpayers,” said Greg Lawson of the Buckeye Institute, a conservative think tank. “This is almost inevitable whenever there is a flurry of last minute policy changes that takes place in the absence of the normal legislative process.”
The Ohio General Assembly is among nine state legislatures considered to be full-time and is among 12 states without constitutional limits on the length of their regular sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Northern Ohio state Rep. Terry Boose, R-Norwalk, advocated for a bill that would prohibit lame duck legislative sessions except in extraordinary circumstances. Boose said his research shows only seven other states hold lame duck sessions.
“I feel that the lame duck session legislation is often rushed and does not promptly go through the committee process. Also as elected officials we need to be held accountable for our actions, so we should be voting on legislation before the election, not after,” Boose said in his written testimony on the bill.
Boose’s bill died in the lame duck session.
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