It was, to say the least, an unusual second half of 2017 around the Statehouse.
The legislative year began routinely, with the Senate and House both passing the state’s biennial budget at the end of June and immediately departing Columbus for their summer break.
Typically, lawmakers don’t return until after Labor Day following completion of the budget. However, just over a week later the House was back. The purpose of this unusual July session was to attempt to override several of the 47 items Gov. John Kasich vetoed from the budget bill. Taking up 11 of the vetoed items, lawmakers successfully overrode all 11.
The House’s action prompted a similar return in August by the Senate, for just one day, solely to consider six of the 11 items the House had previously acted on. The Senate ultimately voted to override the governor on all six. Prior to this year, the last time the legislature even attempted to override multiple budget bill vetoes was 40 years ago, in 1977.
This, however, was just the beginning of what would be an atypical six months.
Though the General Assembly did return in September as normal, routine work on legislation, with committee hearings and legislative sessions, didn’t last long. That’s because, in mid-October, a popular veteran legislator, Sen. Cliff Hite, resigned after admitting to “inappropriate conversations” with a female state employee. Later, a second lawmaker resigned. About a month after Sen. Hite’s resignation, Rep. Wes Goodman was forced out after acknowledging that he participated in inappropriate – albeit consensual – conduct in his Statehouse office.
Partly as a result of these circumstances, numerous scheduled session days were cancelled, and the Senate ended up meeting only nine times and the House one fewer between Labor Day and the end of the year. Not surprisingly, this meant several public policy objectives important to Ohio businesses didn’t get addressed.
Left undone at the end of 2017 was a longstanding Ohio Chamber legislative priority, restoring balance to Ohio’s employment discrimination statutes. This is particularly frustrating, given that House Bill 2 was favorably reported out of committee in early May and yet – eight months later – still awaits assignment to the House calendar for a vote by the full House. This despite the fact that HB 2 underwent numerous changes in committee and the parties that initially opposed the bill are now neutral.
Also left undone – and even farther behind in the process – is a plan to fix Ohio’s broke and broken unemployment compensation system. Reforms are urgently needed to update and strengthen the system for the benefit of Ohio’s employers, employees and economy. Unfortunately, opposition by labor unions to virtually all potential reductions in benefit levels has stymied pursuit of a legitimate solution. Their solution is to just pour more money into the system without addressing the cost drivers.
Conversations continue, but the political will to buck organized labor and pass a balanced bill that addresses both the revenue and spending sides of the equation simply has yet to materialize. Furthermore, as we head into an election year, political resolve will likely be in even shorter supply.
More optimistically, two bills the Ohio Chamber helped author were introduced late in the year, Senate Bill 221 in October and House Bill 450 in mid-December. SB 221 builds on the existing authority of the successful Common Sense Initiative, created in 2011 to help create a more jobs-friendly regulatory climate in Ohio. SB 221 would further minimize the negative impact that agency regulations have on businesses, and could see quick action in the New Year.
HB 450 is designed to provide relief from health insurance mandates. Each new, government-mandated benefit puts upwards pressure on health insurance premiums, ultimately making health insurance even less affordable and accessible. With health care costs being a top concern of most businesses, relief is needed. HB 450 would ensure that already existing mandates and their costs are periodically reviewed, provide health insurance purchasers with additional transparency about the cost impact of mandates, and put some common sense guardrails around future mandates.
The General Assembly will need to move quickly when it returns in January on these and other bills that would improve Ohio’s business climate. It’s an election year, after all. This usually means significant legislative work comes to a halt prior to the May primary, and often doesn’t resume in earnest until after the November General Election. Plus, that assumes a sense of normalcy returns to Columbus. If it doesn’t, and 2018 is as unusual as 2017 was, all bets are off.