- Laura A. Bischoff Columbus bureau
Ohio’s 132 state legislators wrapped up work in Columbus for 2017 with 42 bills signed into law by Gov. John Kasich — including everything from legalizing fantasy sports betting to outlawing abortions once a Down syndrom diagnosis is made.
Kasich signed 15 bills into law on Dec. 22.
Half-way through the two-year legislative session, major issues such as hammering out a new congressional redistricting plan, making changes to the payday lending laws and fixing the broken unemployment compensation system remain on the to-do list at the Ohio Statehouse.
The small number of bills signed into law, though, doesn’t recognize that one piece of legislation — the $133-billion, two-year state budget — is packed with policy changes that impact everything from high school graduation requirements to funding the fight against opiate addiction to plans to divert low-level felons from state prison.
“I feel pretty good overall about what we’ve done in the state senate this year,” said Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina. He noted that lawmakers got the final figures on a $1-billion gap between projected revenues and expenditures until April — about two months before the budget bill had to be adopted — and they were able to make adjustments.
“I think it’s been a great year,” said House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville.
In addition to the massive budget bill, lawmakers adopted bills in 2017 that:
* extended the sales tax holiday for back-to-school shopping in August,
* stiffens penalties for criminals who disfigure their victims,
* assigns oversight of fantasy sports betting to the Ohio Casino Control Commission,
* change high school curriculum requirements to encourage students to take computer science classes,
* strengthen oversight of prescription opioids by the Ohio Board of Pharmacy,
* and makes it a crime for doctors to perform abortions for women seeking them because of a Down syndrome diagnosis.
Ohio also passed a two-year state transportation budget that carves out funding for 43 major highway improvements, 446 bridge projects, 615 pavement projects and 356 safety upgrades.
And while relatively few bills became law this year, legislators introduced hundreds of bills: 451 in the House and 241 in the Senate. When they return to Columbus in January, they’ll face a litany of thorny issues, including putting together a capital spending bill and hammering out a bipartisan plan to change on congressional district maps are drawn to eliminate or mitigate gerrymandering.
Both Rosenberger and Obhof expressed optimism that congressional redistricting reform is within reach — a politically charged goal that has eluded reform for years. Obhof said he expects a bill to be introduced in early January, with bipartisan support, and pass the Senate by the end of the month.
“I too would like to see something move pretty quickly,” Rosenberger said, without disclosing details.
States redraw both legislative and congressional districts every 10 years based on the latest U.S. Census data.
In 2015, Ohio voters approved an amendment reforming how state legislative districts are drawn. Ohio has used a winner-take-all system. The political party that controls three of five seats on the Ohio Apportionment Board has been in control of drawing legislative district maps. Since 1991, the Republicans have held control.
The General Assembly, in turn, draws the congressional district maps. The result has been lopsided, gerrymandered districts that are drawn to favor one party over another. If lawmakers fail to come up with a new system, a grassroots group, Fair Districts Fair Elections, is collecting signatures to place a congressional redistricting plan on the statewide ballot.
And a year ago, Rosenberger and other legislators called a press conference to announce that they would have a plan by April to make the broken unemployment compensation fund solvent. That didn’t happen. State Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, introduced a reform bill and is working to get business groups and labor unions to support it.
Some lawmakers are also pushing for comprehensive changes to areas including updating how court-ordered child support is calculated, strengthening the state’s laws on vicious dogs, ending the practice of suspending very young students except in limited circumstances, limiting how much consumers pay in fees and interest when they take out payday loans.
In 2017, Ohio’s public pension systems introduced benefit cuts to help shore up the funds’ long-term finances. The largest system — Ohio Public Employees Retirement System — is pushing for legal changes to allow it to cut back on the cost of living allowances given to retirees. Schuring, who is working on this issue as well, said he does not have a deadline for passing the changes.
When lawmakers return to Columbus, they may also work in bills that: limit child marriage, change from a money bail system to one based on risk each defendant poses, outlaw a common surgical procedure used in second trimester abortions, prohibit abortions once a heart beat can be detected, and remove the duty for gun owners to retreat.
Senators may also consider a bill that will allow consumers to set off fireworks, such as firecrackers, bottle rockets and Roman candles, on their own property 24-hours a day, seven days a week. The bill already passed the Ohio House on a 77-12 vote in October.