If anyone wants to know why Ohio House speakers, reaching back to the 1970s, have become so important, she or he may want to look at what happened Tuesday at the Statehouse:
It wasn’t a seminar on weighty political principles. It was a demonstration of the speakership’s raw power.
On Jan. 3, the House — composed of 67 Republicans and 32 Democrats — voted 54-43 (with two Republicans absent) to elect Lawrence County Republican Jason Stephens as speaker.
Of the 54 Stephens votes, 32 came from the House’s Democrats, 22 from Republicans. The remaining 43 House Republicans present voted for suburban Toledo Republican Derek Merrin. That is, the House GOP caucus split, with about one-third voting for Stephens, and two-thirds for Merrin.
Just after November’s election, in a secret ballot, a majority of House Republicans had backed Merrin. But by Jan. 3, for reasons that remain unclear, second thoughts set in.
Seizing an opportunity, Stephens — who’d also run for speaker in November — assembled a cross-aisle coalition to make himself, not Merrin, speaker. Merrin’s hard-right allies were understandably angered by their reversal of fortune.
On Tuesday, three weeks after the Jan. 3 vote, it was time to get the House moving by electing most of its other GOP officers and adopting House rules for 2023 and 2024.
The rules vote was a test of Stephens’s strength, because Merrin and his backers aimed to propose rules to prune Stephens’s power. But the Merrin faction never got the chance: Without Stephens allowing any debate, the House voted 64-35 for the rules Stephens wanted.
Among those voting “yes” on Stephens’ rules were eight Republican representatives who had voted for Merrin for speaker : Reps. Brian Baldridge, of Winchester, who is becoming state Agriculture director, courtesy of Gov. Mike DeWine; Adam Bird, of New Richmond; Jamie Callender of Concord; David Dobos, of Columbus; Jim Hoops, of Napoleon; Brian Lampton, of Fairborn; Adam Mathews, of Lebanon; and Sharon Ray, of Wadsworth.
For serving as House majority whip under Stephens, Hoops will annually be paid about $82,090, about 17.5% greater than base House pay (approximately $69,876). For serving as assistant majority whip, Ray will be paid about $76,325, about 9.2% above base pay. And Callender, appointed by Stephens a Finance subcommittee chair, will be paid $9,000 extra (about $78,876, roughly 13% above base pay).
Stephens said he’ll appoint 15 Merrin supporters to chair House committees. In most instances, a chairmanship boosts a House member’s pay by $9,000 a year, about 12.9% more than a representative’s $69,876 base pay. And Stephens appointed Merrin backers to 24 vice-chairmanships, each paying $6,750 a year extra, a salary boost of about 9.6%. If any Merrin supporters are shunning Stephens’s raises, they haven’t announced that.
That explains how things really work in the legislature. Being a committee chair attracts donations, or at least ring-kissing. But yanking a chairmanship from a House member (or senator) is like being exiled to Siberia (and having to pay your own fare to get there).
That is, the supplemental pay set-up — including $150-a-day assignments to the Controlling Board — is a great way for speakers and Senate presidents (they’ve mostly been Republican for a generation) to help … manage … Statehouse caucuses. Forget the fact meanwhile that legislative pay supplements may arguably be constitutionally iffy.
State legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, can yammer all they want about “principles” and “philosophy.” But the real object for most Ohio legislative leaders is how to get — and keep — power. Jason Stephens is proving pretty good at it.
Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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