Ohio legislators get going on key issues

While Washington dawdles, Columbus acts: That was the Statehouse shape-up last week, as the Senate and Ohio House passed important bills – one on medical marijuana, the other on open records – in bipartisan roll-calls.

In Washington, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, did what he does best, play Hamlet, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, calls to mind the unpleasant in-law you’d really rather not have to see at Thanksgiving.

The contrast with Ohio’s Statehouse couldn’t be more stark, because General Assembly Republicans and Democrats do attend to public business.

The Senate, run 23-10 by President Keith Faber of Celina and fellow Republicans, voted 33-0 last week to send the House a bill to toughen (in taxpayers’ favor) Ohio’s open records law.

Substitute Senate Bill 321, sponsored by Faber, would offer a new and easier way to appeal when someone is denied a public record he or she is entitled to see. Among the Faber bill’s backers are Attorney General Mike DeWine and State Auditor David Yost and the Ohio Newspaper Association.

Ohio’s original open-records law allowed relatively few closed-record exceptions. The exceptions have been metastasizing, though, for an array of bogus reasons. Faber’s bill is a reminder of a maxim seemingly first cited by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1960 in an opinion written by then-Justice Charles B. Zimmerman, a Springfield Democrat: “The rule in Ohio is that public records are the people’s records, and that the officials in whose custody they happen to be are merely trustees for the people.” Trouble is, though, that the people’s trustees sometimes forget who they’re supposed to be working for – which is why the Faber bill is so important.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s House, run 65-34 by Republicans led by Speaker Clifford A. Rosenberger of Clarksville, sent Faber’s Senate a bipartisan bill to legalize medical marijuana. The bill’s sponsor is Rep. Stephen Huffman, a Tipp City Republican who’s also a physician. Among the Huffman bill’s co-sponsors are Democratic Reps. Dan Ramos of Lorain and Nicholas J. Celebrezze or Parma.

No question, and as legislators themselves say, Huffman’s Substitute House Bill 523 wouldn’t go as far as a proposed constitutional amendment, likely to be on November’s ballot, for voters to pass or kill, that’s being proposed by Ohioans for Medical Marijuana.

There are three reasons legislators are writing their own medical marijuana plan. Reason One is that polling suggests Ohioans overwhelming support making it legal to use marijuana for medical purposes. Reason Two is that if Ohioans don’t have a choice of plans, a ballot issue could look like the only option that the state’s voters would have. Reason Three is that the legislature seemingly has figured out, finally, that defaulting to ballot issue backers to write Ohio laws isn’t necessarily a great idea. (Take a bow, casino owners.)

There’ll be a robust debate on the pluses and minuses of each plan, proposed by Ohioans for Medical Marijuana campaigners and backers of HB 523, leading up to November. But for now, the telling thing is the cross-party makeup in Rosenberger’s House roll-call last week on the medical marijuana bill.

The House passed it 71 to 26. (Two members, one per party, were absent on that roll-call.) Of the 71 representatives voting yes, 44 were Republicans, including Rosenberger, while 27 were Democrats, including Minority Leader Fred Strahorn, a Dayton Democrat. Of the 26 House members voting no on the medical marijuana bill, 20 were Republicans, six were Democrats. In Congress, only motherhood-and-the-flag bills would draw such cross-bench backing – which is why Washington, compared to Columbus, is a diorama of dysfunction.