SUDDES: Lame-duck session will see big-stakes, hot-issue politicking

The General Assembly is due back at the Statehouse a week after Nov. 8′s election, perfect timing for Statehouse Republican to make (even more) moves against abortion.

Anybody who expects a political cease-fire after voting ends will be disappointed. There’s no better time for big-stakes, hot-issue politicking than a legislature’s “lame-duck” (post-election) session. Reason: Even if a state legislator didn’t run for re-election Nov. 8, or lost, terms of 2021-22 House members, and of half the Senate’s members, run through Dec. 31.

That is, some members of the General Assembly, though they’ll legislate in November and December, won’t face voters again. Ideas dismissed before an election as controversial or radical or politically dangerous can get passed after an election, when voters are distracted by the approach of Thanksgiving or Christmas – or the Ohio State-Michigan game.

Traditionally, lame-duck sessions were when legislators gave themselves pay-raises. That’s unlikely this year because Ohio’s current legislative salary law, passed in a December 2018 lame-duck when legislators overrode a veto by then-Gov. John R. Kasich, phases in legislative pay raises through 2028. (Currently, base pay for a General Assembly member is $68,674 a year. Ohio’s median household income in Ohio was $58,116 in 2020.)

Bottom-line, some General Assembly members, regardless of their districts or constituents. will be functionally free to vote as they please on abortion after Nov. 8.

In theory, that could be a plus for either the pro- or anti-abortion faction. But because of big GOP majorities in the legislature, the anti-abortion faction will almost certainly call the shots, along with anti-abortion Republican Gov. Mike DeWine. Even if Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley, Dayton’s former mayor, defeats DeWine on Nov. 8, DeWine’s term wouldn’t expire until Jan. 9, allowing plenty of time for the General Assembly to craft anti-abortion legislation that DeWine could sign into law.

Someone who expects legislative moderation on abortion hasn’t been paying attention to Ohio’s General Assembly. Its Republicans are not get-along, go-along politicians. Because of gerrymandering – in which DeWine, as a member of the Redistricting Commission, cooperated – Ohio House and state Senate districts are effectively filled in party primaries, where hard-right Republicans tend to win, rather than in the November general election. Result: All-dogma, all-the-time, rather than inter-party bargaining, deal-making and logrolling.

Republicans now hold 64 seats in the Ohio House of Representatives, where passing a bill requires 50 votes and overriding a veto requires 60 votes. Republicans hold 25 seats in the Ohio Senate, where passing a bill requires 17 votes and overriding a veto requires 20 votes.

Democrats last had an Ohio House majority in 2009-2010, under then-Speaker Armond Budish, of suburban Cleveland, who is now Cuyahoga County executive, and a Senate majority in 1983-1984, under President Harry Meshel, of Youngstown. (Meshel died in 2017 at age 93.)

So: If anyone thinks General Assembly Republicans won’t aim to pass the toughest possible abortion restrictions in November or December, he or she’s likely mistaken. (Possible legislative sessions are slated for September but are considered unlikely. An old Statehouse rule of thumb is that all a legislature can do if it meets before an election is get in political trouble.)

The Statehouse’s anti-abortion legislators had been waiting almost 50 years for something akin to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which the high court announced on June 24. That was three weeks after the General Assembly had gone home for the summer, on June 1. When the General Assembly returns, there’ll be stormy days at the Statehouse, with a male-majority legislature trying to further limit women’s reproductive decisions in a female-majority state.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at tsuddes@gmail.com.

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