Bill adding gun control measures in Ohio faces opposition in hearing

A bill that partially resurrects the failed “Strong Ohio” gun control measures from 2019 had a third hearing Tuesday in the Senate Finance Committee, running into opposition from gun-rights groups, police and mental health advocates.

State Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, introduced Senate Bill 357 shortly after the November general election, and presented a slightly altered substitute bill to the committee.

The bill would prohibit people from buying guns if they’ve been deemed a “suicidal or homicidal risk” during a behavioral risk assessment. Several opponents denounced that process as informal and loosely defined.

Dolan’s bill would require gun buyers under age 21 to have a cosigner age 25 or older, with exceptions for those in law enforcement or the military. It would also increase the charge for “straw purchases” — buying a gun for someone who’s prohibited from doing so — from a fourth-degree felony to a second-degree felony. It would also add a box to gun-purchase paperwork to ask if buyers are on public assistance, meaning they’d risk losing benefits if caught in a straw purchase. That too drew opposition.

Megan Burke from the Mental Health & Addiction Advocacy Coalition said she applauded the bill’s intent, but as written it perpetuates the “false narrative” that the mentally ill are more likely to commit gun crimes. They’re more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators, she said. Burke did praise the bill’s increased funding for mental healthcare.

Dolan’s bill would appropriate $175 million in federal funds: $85 million for train and hire more mental healthcare workers, and $90 million to build a statewide network of regional healthcare crisis centers statewide, helping to keep people who need treatment out of local jails.

Distracted driving

A bill to crack down on distracted driving, which passed the state House in November, got its first hearing in a Senate committee Tuesday.

Substitute House Bill 283, sponsored by state Reps. Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, and Brian Lampton, R-Beavercreek, would make looking at an electronic device while driving a primary offense, allowing police to stop and ticket drivers solely for doing that while on the road.

“The main intent is to change the culture of texting, emailing, virtual meetings and recording videos while driving,” Lampton told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But the version in the Senate isn’t as strong as the original. Amendments in a House committee by state Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, would allow drivers to talk on the phone so long as it’s held to their ear instead of looking at it, and would still let them look at phones while stopped at a traffic signal. Lampton said the bill would also allow “one swipe” on a screen, just not a prolonged look.

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The bill includes “common sense exemption” for emergencies and people like utility workers or police whose jobs require them to look at electronics.

If it becomes law, citations would hold off for six months for a “massive public awareness campaign,” Lampton said. Even after that, first offenders could avoid license points by taking a free online course on distracted driving, he said.

Tax amnesty

A long-stalled tax amnesty bill got a first hearing in a Senate committee — for the second time.

State Reps. Thomas West, D-Canton, and Bill Roemer, R-Richfield, filed House Bill 45 in February 2021. A substitute bill passed the House in December 2021 and went to the Senate Ways & Means Committee. But after three hearings there it was re-referred to the Senate Finance Committee, where it came up Tuesday.

The bill would establish a two-month amnesty period for 19 state and local taxes. Delinquent taxpayers could absolve those debts by paying the original tax bill; penalties and fees would be waived.

The bill originally set the amnesty for July 1 through Aug. 31 of 2022, Roemer said. If it’s to pass, that period should be changed to the same dates in 2023, he said.

The bill also appropriates $250,000 to advertise and administrate the program.

“We would expect that this would generate approximately $10 million,” Roemer said.

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