SUDDES: General Assembly should consider thinning Ohio’s bureaucratic thicket

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University. He covered the Statehouse for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer for many years.
Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University. He covered the Statehouse for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer for many years.

The General Assembly doesn’t seem to understand that its job isn’t to limit women’s options about pregnancies, nor to require everyone in Ohio to pack heat.

Instead, Ohio’s state senators and state representatives are supposed to be Brush Hogs, hacking and thinning Ohio’s bureaucratic thicket. Too bad they don’t.

A good place to start would be Ohio’s bloated K-12 bureaucracies. Ohio ranks No. 34 among the 50 states in geographic size. Ohio has 609 school districts, not counting vocational districts. Texas ranks No. 2 (after Alaska) among the 50 states in geographic area. Texas has 1,029 school districts, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.

There’s a lot not to like about Texas, whose Legislature makes Ohio’s General Assembly look like a chapter of Mensa. But does anyone honestly think Ohio, whose population isn’t really growing, needs 609 school boards?

Likewise, if Covid-19 has taught Ohio anything (besides the fact vaccines don’t magnetize the human body) it’s that Ohio’s public health laws need a rewrite. Their basic framework was hammered together in 1919 by a General Assembly that rural Ohio then dominated. Health boards and their staffs should be regionalized at least, which is about the best you can expect of a legislature that thinks Ohio’s Health Department is a dictatorship in waiting.

Then there’s the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio which, depending on the day of the week, either plays helpless bystander when the electric and gas companies raise rates, or cheers them on.

The panel, created just before the First World War, is even older than Ohio’s health boards. Its real purpose is to insulate governors and the legislature from the consequences of pro-utility favors legislators pass and governors sign. In that respect, the PUCO deserves a smidgen of sympathy for taking punches that should land elsewhere.

After all, it’s the legislature, not the PUCO, that’s sitting on major pro-consumer legislation, such as Senate Bill 117, which would abolish one huge vestige of House Bill 6, the scandal-pocked nuclear power plant bailout law: Ohio electricity consumers are still paying extra every month to subsidize three Ohio electric utilities (American Electric Power, AES/DP&L, Duke Energy) that are among owners of two coal-fueled power plants, one in Indiana.

According to the Office of Consumers’ Counsel, Ohio electricity consumers have paid the three Ohio utilities more than $153 million so far in coal plant subsidies. And attempts to repeal those subsidies is stalled – big surprise – in the legislature.

Meanwhile the legislature is also dawdling over a bill to abolish Ohio’s no-refund legal policy when Ohio’s Supreme Court overturns a PUCO-approved rate boost.

The legal rigmarole behind that rule, which dates to a Cincinnati Bell rate case in the 1950s, is kind of like what the British diplomat Palmerston said about a complicated German-Danish dispute: Only three people understood it, he said: One died, one went mad, and the third, Palmerston himself, had “forgotten all about it.” But utilities’ lawyers haven’t forgotten the Keco case, as it’s known, which is why utility refunds are comparatively rare.

CORRECTION: Rep. Haraz Ghanbari, a Perrysburg Republican, voted “no” on House Bill 175, now in the Senate, which would end Ohio’s regulation of ephemeral streams, “surface water … that flows or pools only in response to precipitation, such as rain or snow,” the Legislative Service Commission reports. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which answers to Gov. Mike DeWine, opposes the bill, as does a raft of pro-environment groups. An Oct. 11 column incorrectly said Rep. Laura Lanese, of Grove City, in suburban Columbus, was the only House Republican to vote “no” on the bill.

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University.

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