Saturday, August 30, 2014

House Finishes for Spring Break, Passes MBR Bills Full of Easter Eggs

In a marathon session, the House passed 10 bills Wednesday afternoon and evening, with nine related to the governor’s mid-biennium budget (MBR) review.

The most debate came on HB483 (Amstutz), the general operating portion mid-biennium review bill that became more controversial this week thanks to a number of items added in an omnibus amendment accepted on Monday. (See The Hannah Report, 4/7/14). Although House Republicans took out a provision that would have penalized counties that break state law when it comes to mailing absentee ballots, Democrats on Wednesday focused all their fire on another provision that undid a rule implemented by former Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner that addressed outside spending by businesses and unions.

Brunner created the rule after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case that opened up corporation and union spending on elections.

During Wednesday’s session, Democrats unsuccessfully tried to remove the provision. Rep. Debbie Phillips (D-Athens), who introduced the amendment, said the provision has the potential to make Ohioans lose faith in their government and said the way it was added to the bill is not the way to make a sweeping policy change.

Rep. Bob Hagan (D-Youngstown) noted that legislators are already unpopular, adding such a provision has the potential to make people like them even less.

Rep. Matt Huffman (R-Lima) pointed out that Brunner promulgated the rule at the end of her term in office, and the General Assembly never had the chance to be properly vet it. He said the rule has a variety of problems, especially considering subsequent rulings the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down.

Despite the amendment's being tabled, Democrats continued to rail on the provision, with some asking where the amendment came from and who introduced it. Rep. Chris Redfern (D-Catawaba Island), who also serves as the Ohio Democratic Party chairman, asked if Ohio were creating new policy by voiding the rule. Huffman responded that the Legislature was not creating something, but voiding something that is vague.

Other Democrats introduced amendments aimed at making JobsOhio more transparent, especially in light of what they said would direct more corporate money to campaigns due to the previously discussed provision. The amendments would have required disclosure of corporate donations going to JobsOhio, to have a report on financial assistance to businesses and corporate donations posted online, to require a public audit of JobsOhio, and to create an independent inspector general and whistleblower protections for employees.

All of the Democratic amendments were tabled, including one from Rep. Dan Ramos (D-Lorain) that would require the state to seek a waiver for requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if there were not enough job placement opportunities.

Republicans added one amendment from Rep. Ryan Smith (R-Gallipolis), which included a number of changes including adding funding to the Connect Ohio program.

Many of the speeches complained of process, including one from Rep. Terry Boose (R-Norwalk), who said that the number of “Christmas tree” bills were making lawmakers act more like those in Washington, D.C. He said they need to tell the governor that it is their job to run legislation through the process, and he should give them his ideas on a regular basis, not through an annual budget. He noted he has met with the governor rarely since he took office.

Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R-Napoleon) said that he has found the governor’s office quite open to discussing issues if needed and said he is glad things have changed.

Rep. Ron Amstutz (R-Wooster), the sponsor of the bill, also said the process has worked better than in previous years, offering to tell his colleagues stories over coffee. He said the process still needs work, though.

Rep. Mike Foley (D-Cleveland) said the bill was a missed opportunity to correct some of the problems of previous budget bills, including restoring funding to local governments and helping more people in need.

The bill passed by a party-line vote of 57-33, with all Republicans voting in favor of the bill and Democrats opposed.

The House also split on HB369 (Sprague), a bill that makes a variety of law changes to address the opiate and drug addiction crisis in the state. Sponsor Rep. Robert Sprague (R-Findlay) said the epidemic of overdoses costs the state $3.5 billion every year and ravages families. He said the bill would give hope to families that are struggling with addiction.

Boose said he was supporting the bill, but said it was not perfect, calling it an “unfunded mandate” that will take some money from local ADAMH boards and give it to others. He said that if the Legislature really wanted to get serious about drug and alcohol addiction and mental health, it would supply more money.

“I am talking about an investment. This bill trades money back and forth. It takes money from one hand and puts it into another. Some people will win and some people will lose,” he said.

Rep. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) said she is also conflicted for many of the same reasons that Boose outlined. She said the original bill had a better appropriation in it, and later added that a bigger issue is that Ohio’s Medicaid program does not cover a number of services offered by providers.

The bill passed 70-20, with all of the no votes coming from Democrats.

Worked proceeded apace on several other MBR bills Wednesday night following passage of the HB483 and HB369.

The House passed HB485, a proposal for an Office of Human Services Innovation that also became the vehicle to incorporate addiction-related measures HB314, HB341 and HB366. The vote was 62-28.

Antonio voiced concerned over committee amendments that also incorporated the language of HB352, which addresses regulation of therapeutic wilderness camps. She said lawmakers should not be moving to license the only such facility in the state when it is currently the subject of a court case. But Amstutz said the camp is in court because the law fails to address such types of facilities, and he said they shouldn't let the camp languish in court because of that.

Consideration of HB487, the K-12 education component of the MBR, which passed 61-28, sparked another debate on the third grade reading guarantee, which stands to hold back third graders for the first time this academic year if they don't meet literacy testing cut scores.

Rep. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) unsuccessfully sought an amendment to delay the guarantee's retention requirement until the 2018-2019 school year. She urged Ohio to follow the path of Florida, which she said funded its program more fully and ensured sufficient staff and curricular development before moving ahead.

Rep. Gerald Stebelton (R-Lancaster), the House Education Committee chairman, noted the successive rounds of testing and intervention built into the guarantee law in earlier grades, predicting most children would meet reading standards by the end of third grade.

"Yes, it's not good to retain a child in third grade, but it's far worse not to retain them in third grade and pass them on to fourth grade without the interventions they need," he said.

The chamber passed the workers' compensation MBR bill, HB493, on an 87-4 vote, after Rep. John Adams (R-Sidney) overcame a tabling motion with Democrats' help and succeeded in attaching an amendment to require the Bureau of Workers' Compensation to include information about its premium calculation formula in businesses' bills. House Speaker William Batchelder (R-Medina) was upset about Adams' move after session, noting the amendment had earlier failed in committee on a tie vote.

"Obviously, it undermines the chairman and so forth. It's not a healthy thing," he said.

Rep. Lou Terhar (R-Cincinnati) was the only member to speak against HB493, saying the revenue taken out of the system as a result of the switch to prospective billing of employers would hurt the prospects of ever privatizing the system.

The chamber also voted unanimously to approve the following MBR bills:

- HB484 (Rosenberger-Brown), the higher education measure, which includes more focus on performance-based funding in higher education and creation of a study group on need-based financial aid.
- HB486 (Baker-Stebelton), the economic and workforce development measure, which aligns reporting for federal workforce programs and creates a regulatory compliance incentive program.
- HB488 (Dovilla-Landis), which helps people more easily translate their military training into academic credit, among other veteran-friendly provisions.
- HB492 (Scherer), the administrative portion of the tax reform proposals.

Ater session, Batchelder said he hopes to be able to move on providing an income tax cut in coming weeks, but was noncommittal on other aspects of the governor's tax reform package, such as the severance tax.

"I think we can cover a cut at this point, but I do not have a definitive answer on that at this point," he said.

Batchelder also said he was unsure what other legislation would be a priority for the chamber to pass before the summer recess.
Story originally published in The Hannah Report on April 9, 2014.  Copyright 2014 Hannah News Service, Inc.


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