Ohio legislators return to Columbus this month for a “lame-duck” session — a mad dash of lawmaking before the two-year session ends in December and the newly elected crew takes over in January.
There is no shortage of meaty and controversial topics in the statehouse pipeline: relaxing restrictions on fireworks, increasing restrictions on abortion, giving gun owners the right to stand their ground in dangerous situations, restricting gun rights, banning child marriage, improving amusement ride safety inspections, regulating vicious dogs and bumping up training requirements for teen drivers.
All told, 1,005 bills are pending. More bills may yet be introduced.
Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said he will introduce a criminal justice reform bill yet this session that seeks to change some low-level felony drug offenses to misdemeanors with probation as the likely sentence if the offender agrees to drug treatment. It would allow people currently incarcerated for those offenses to petition courts for re-sentencing.
The legislation comes on the heels of State Issue 1, the failed ballot measure that would have changed Ohio law through a constitutional amendment. After the defeat on Tuesday, Dennis Willard, spokesperson for the Yes on Issue 1 campaign said, “Our opponents may celebrate tonight, but tomorrow they will wake up with the same crisis on their hands, and not one step closer to real solutions.”
Obhof and House Speaker Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, both said they were happy that State Issue 1 failed, but they believe some criminal justice reforms are needed.
RELATED: Related: Lawmakers cram bills through lame duck session
It’s unclear whether the lawmakers will find a fix for the unemployment compensation fund, which pays jobless benefits to laid-off workers. It went broke in 2009, forcing the state to borrow $3.4 billion from the federal government and then pay it back with $257.7 million in interest. Labor and business are at odds over the best way to make it solvent for the long haul: cut benefits, raise taxes or a combination of the two.
Obhof said senators are working on a new bill to address the problem, though it may be handled next year.
Another big issue looming is the question of bail reform. The ACLU of Ohio, Buckeye Institute, Justice Action Network and Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor are pushing for sweeping changes to how Ohio courts set bail for defendants, who have yet to have their day in court.
Bail has two purposes: to make sure the accused appear in court and to protect the public from harm. Nearly six in 10 jail inmates aren’t actually serving a sentence but instead are awaiting trial. House Bill 439 would let courts impose conditions instead of setting a monetary bail to make sure the accused shows up in court; require courts to use a risk assessment tool before setting bail; and wipe out cash schedules for setting bail. It would also require courts to collect data.
Two years ago during the lame-duck session, lawmakers whipped more than 50 bills through final passage in six days. At the time, the Senate was led by Republican Keith Faber of Celina and the House speaker was Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarskville.
So far this year, the House held 15 voting sessions and the Senate held 18. The House was crippled by crisis when Rosenberger resigned in April and Republicans fought over who should be the new speaker. For the rest of the year, the House has 10 session days — three listed as taking place only if needed — and the Senate has eight days scheduled, but half are listed as “if needed.”
Obhof said Senate Republicans will meet early this week to decide which pending bills will get attention in the lame duck and which might have to be re-introduced next year. Bills introduced within the current two-year session can’t be carried over.
Obhof said he wasn’t happy with how the lame duck has played out in recent years. “I’d like something that is more deliberative,” he said.
With Republican Mike DeWine winning the governor’s race, lawmakers are less likely to feel the need to push through controversial legislation that a Democrat in the governor’s office would likely veto.
DeWine, Obhof said, will be a “good partner” for legislative priorities.
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