SUDDES: HB 218 targets employers, may violate Ohio Constitution, home rule

There’s one state law that doesn’t seem to apply to that big hot-air duct in downtown Columbus – Ohio’s General Assembly. Officially, you can’t practice medicine in the Buckeye State without a license. But a bill pending at the Statehouse seems to say you sure can – if, that is, you’re a member of the legislature.

Now pending in the state Senate is a House-passed measure, Substitute House Bill 218, which – reduced to essentials – aims to forbid schools and employers to require COVID-19 vaccinations.

The dual targets, without naming either, are, naturally, President Biden’s (Democratic) administration, and – unnaturally for a GOP legislature – the management rights of Ohio’s employers. You know, “employers”: The manufacturers and merchants who help put bread on Ohio’s tables and money in Ohio’s wallets. The bill’s anti-employer tilt is one reason why Republican Gov. Mike DeWine opposes the measure, a spokesman has indicated.

The bill, sponsored by a suburban Youngstown Republican, Rep. Al Cutrona, started out as something else altogether – to temporarily extended the hours during which bars may be open. Fair enough: COVID-19 has hit the hospitality industry hard.

The House converted the bill into an anti-vaccination bill because the House’s badly split GOP caucus needed some red meat to throw to its restless grassroots supporters.

Time was when Statehouse Republicans gladly and often said that Ohio employers are “job-creators.” But HB 218, as now written, stops barely short of seeing employers as agents of the Deep State.

True, Ohioans, many of them, are fed up with COVID-19 and its delta and omicron and whatever-comes-next variants. But, true also, vaccination is the one procedure most effective in fighting COVID-19. And opposing vaccination isn’t very consistent with a legislative body that proclaims itself pro-life.

The truly remarkable thing about the bill is what the non-partisan-to-a-fault Legislative Service Commission, the General Assembly’s always understated research and bill-drafting arm, says about the version of HB 218 now pending in the Senate.

Among other potential problems, the commission’s analysis warns, the bill may violate the Ohio Constitution’s ban on retroactive laws; could breach city and village home rule – albeit, for the last 20 years, a habitual legislative abuse at the Statehouse; and may impair contracts, which would violate both the U.S. and Ohio constitutions.

That is, passage of the bill, as it now stands, might as well be a full employment act for Ohio lawyers, given the big bull’s-eye, federal and state, which the legislation would paint on itself. (And here you also thought the GOP was the party of tort-reform – the crusade to reduce the number of lawsuits filed in Ohio, i.e., short-change injured people of just compensation.)

Now the question is, who’ll blink first: The Senate which could water down the House-passed version of the bill (but may not) – or DeWine? The governor, up for re-election next year, likely doesn’t want to further tick off Ohio Republicans’ hard-right activists, who call talk shows, never miss a primary – and have long memories.

MEANWHILE: If nothing else, the Redistricting Commission’s gerrymander of Ohio House and state Senate districts, plus the General Assembly’s gerrymander of Ohio’s (prospective) congressional districts may also boost lawyers’ billable hours. Anti-gerrymandering plaintiffs have filed three lawsuits challenging the new Ohio House and state Senate districts.

The high court has scheduled oral arguments for Wednesday, Dec. 8 over the allegedly pro-Republican General Assembly gerrymanders. It’s impossible to know if the eventual decision by the Supreme Court – four Republicans and three Democrats – will cross or follow party lines. An idealist hopes for a cross-party ruling. A realist admits that she or he is in Ohio.

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

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