AMIDST STATEHOUSE TURMOIL, KEY PRO-BUSINESS PRIORITIES STILL ADVANCE

The first sentence of a blog post published on the Ohio Chamber’s All for Ohio blog on December 27, 2017 said this: “It was, to say the least, an unusual second half of 2017 around the Statehouse.”

Well, as Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” Though we couldn’t have known it at the time, the first six months of 2018 made the last six months of 2017 seem downright normal by comparison.

When Ohio lawmakers wrapped up business for the first half of 2018 and left Columbus on June 27, it brought to an end what was undoubtedly one of the strangest six-month periods ever for the Ohio General Assembly. The main reason was a nearly eight-week stretch during which the Ohio House of Representatives was without a Speaker.

The direct cause of this turmoil was the resignation of former Speaker Cliff Rosenberger on April 12. He resigned under a cloud amidst news that the FBI may be investigating some of his travel and other expenses.

Unable to agree on how or when to take an official vote to fill the unexpected vacancy – much less who to choose to fill it – the House was at an impasse and unable to conduct its ordinary business. Finally, on June 6, the House met and elected Rep. Ryan Smith as the new Speaker. Even this process was extraordinary. Four representatives were nominated, and it took ten ballots to decide the outcome. Despite the fact that Republicans control the 99-member House with a substantial 66-33 majority, Smith was elected with a plurality, but not a majority, of votes.

Even before Rosenberger’s resignation, there was a bitter battle being waged between Rep. Smith and another Republican, Rep. Larry Householder, to position themselves to succeed the term-limited Rosenberger. This caused ongoing friction within the GOP caucus. Further, all of this was occurring in the midst of a heated May 8 primary election in which 16 incumbents faced primary opposition (all but one secured their party’s nomination) and there was a total of 53 contested House primaries.

The eight weeks without a Speaker left the House paralyzed, and no legislation – including important pro-business bills backed by the Ohio Chamber – could be voted upon. However, the House subsequently tried to make up for lost time: during three marathon session days, the chamber passed 70 bills and agreed to changes the Senate made to 20 others. Included amongst these 90 bills were several that will help strengthen Ohio’s business climate.

Most significant was the passage of Senate Bill 221. This bill builds upon the existing authority of the successful Common Sense Initiative to minimize the negative impact that state regulations have on business. It passed both the Senate and the House with wide, bipartisan support. By the time you read this, we anticipate Gov. John Kasich will have signed this bill to make sure Ohio rules and regulations are as jobs-friendly as possible.

Also awaiting Gov. Kasich’s signature is Senate Bill 220. This legislation – the first of its kind in the nation – provides businesses who institute a robust cybersecurity program in compliance with the statute an affirmative defense in a lawsuit involving a data breach. In today’s world, where companies are daily confronting increasingly complex cybersecurity challenges, SB 220 further incentivizes businesses to invest in and maintain reasonable cybersecurity measures to protect employee, customer, and other private information.

One of the bills to which the House agreed to changes made in the Senate was House Bill 292. Last year, the legislature eliminated the longstanding right of taxpayers to obtain a direct review by the Ohio Supreme Court of decisions rendered by the Board of Tax Appeals. This change made an already costly process even more costly, and would also have resulted in tax law possibly being applied differently across Ohio. However, the Senate included an amendment to HB 292 that partially restores the right of direct appeal. The governor has already signed this bill into law.

While these were the only bills supported by the Ohio Chamber finalized by the legislature, the first half of 2018 saw four other key bills pass one chamber and get initial review in the other. These included measures to: 1) require local taxing entities to pass a resolution authorizing a property tax valuation challenge and notify the property owner prior to filing the challenge (HB 343); 2) cut down on drive-by lawsuits against businesses for alleged disability accessibility violations (HB 271); 3) clarify that employees of a franchisee are not considered employees of a franchisor for the purposes of the tax code, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, and other areas affecting the employment relationship (HB 494); and 4) require state agencies to reduce regulatory restrictions by 30 percent by the end of 2022 (SB 293).

These bills, in particular, are now primed to be completed when lawmakers return to Columbus. While there are a handful of days on which either the House or Senate is scheduled to possibly be back in action prior to the November election, the strong likelihood is that these – and all other remaining bills of interest to employers – will still be pending when legislators resume business afterwards. (To see the Ohio Chamber’s top legislative priorities for the remainder of the 132nd General Assembly, go to www.OhioChamber.com/top-priorities.) The legislature’s “lame duck” session once again promises to be intense, active and, yes, crazy. Let’s just hope it’s the normal craziness, and not a sequel to the strangeness of the year’s first six months!

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