The 135th session of the state legislature will begin on Tuesday, and Republicans hope to utilize their record-setting majorities to push through a conservative agenda, including the expansion of school vouchers and the reduction or elimination of the state income tax. Republicans will begin this year’s session with 67 of 99 Ohio House seats and 26 of 33 Ohio Senate seats, the most seats any party has won in Ohio since 1967 when the current legislative system of single-member districts was created.
This is thanks to a legislative redistricting plan pushed through by Republicans despite being repeatedly found unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court. Along with the new governor comes a new House speaker: a Republican from the Toledo region and supporter of anti-union “right-to-work” legislation and a near-total ban on abortion. For the next two years, Republican Senator from Lima Matt Huffman will serve as Senate President.
Such overwhelming majorities have pros and cons for Republican leaders in the legislature. They can get bills passed or even override Republican Governor Mike DeWine’s vetoes without the support of the state’s Democrats. However, the greater the size of the House and Senate GOP caucuses, the more likely it is that disagreements would arise inside the party about which issues should be prioritized for passage.
During an interview, Merrin refused to specify what policies he hopes to push through this session, and a spokesman for the Senate Republican Party, John Fortney, said it is too early to tell what is likely to succeed. Nonetheless, many state legislators and Columbus residents say they anticipate a mix of ideas that were tabled in the last session and brand-new initiatives.
The new state budget, which spans two years, is the most crucial piece of legislation that needs to be passed, and it needs to be done by the end of June. However, the budget bill sometimes includes other policy ideas that have little to do with budget spendings, such as new limitations on abortion and allowing collegiate athletes to earn off their name, image, and likeness.
Whether or not lawmakers will continue to fully fund the Cupp-Patterson school-funding plan, passed as part of the last budget package, is an important aspect of the budget process to watch. Also, in the coming weeks, legislators will decide whether or not to place on the May ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would need a supermajority vote to enact any future constitutional modifications.
In the last session, that idea was brought up in the end, but it was ultimately defeated. According to proponents, the bill failed to pass because some lawmakers who would have voted for it were absent on the last day of the session. They are hopeful that it will be approved by the legislature this year.
This idea emerged as support grew for a number of statewide ballot proposals in Ohio, including ones to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, increase the minimum wage, and alter the state’s redistricting process once more.
State Representative Brian Stewart (R-Pickaway County) has claimed that the issue needs to be passed by the legislature by February 1 in order to be on the statewide ballot in May.
These Other Contentious Initiatives Are Also Likely to Be Brought up Again This Session:
Overhauling the Ohio Department of Education: Legislators also failed to enact a GOP-sponsored proposal to transfer most of the State Board of Education’s authority to the governor’s office during the lame-duck session of 2017. Proponents of the measure argue that the board’s discussions have been fruitless infighting. Those who disagree with the plan point out that Republicans moved forward with it soon after Democrats won control of the State Board of Education in November.
Increased use of school vouchers: Both Merrin and Huffman back a “backpack bill” that would allow vouchers to be used for public school tuition in Ohio, allowing every child in the state to attend a private school of their parent’s choosing. Proponents argue that parents should have the option to send their children to public or private schools, while opponents argue that this would further strain public schools’ budgets.
Restriction of Transgender People: Last year’s lame-duck session in Ohio saw the failure of two contentious measures relating to young transgender people; both are expected to be reintroduced this year. One would make it illegal for doctors in Ohio to conduct gender transition surgery on children. The alternative would make it illegal for transgender students to participate in high school or university sports programs for girls and women.
Marijuana: Legislators in Ohio are considering a bill to legalize recreational marijuana use before the matter goes to a vote of the people in November. Cannabis Safety First’s creator Tim Johnson says they’re trying to get House Republicans to sponsor legislation that would legalize marijuana for adults in Ohio.
Johnson said the bill would merge two proposals that were introduced during the last session but ultimately failed in both the House and the Senate. Before voters may weigh in on a proposed initiated statute, “the objective of it is to drive the politicians into actually enacting a legislative measure,” Johnson said.
Ohio’s medical marijuana program is expected to receive updated laws as well. The bill, which was approved by the Senate but never heard from again by the House, would have legalized the use of medical marijuana for any ailment that “reasonably expected to be eased” by the substance. More dispensaries could have been opened, and more kinds of medicinal marijuana, such as tablets, suppositories, and inhalers, may have been marketed.
In addition to protecting medical marijuana patients from housing discrimination and child custody rights, Johnson said he plans to present a new bill in the House that would increase the threshold for marijuana OVIs in Ohio. The bills considered by the legislature will not always be identical to those considered in the previous session.
There Will Probably Be Some New Suggestions Like:
Redistricting: After months of bickering, Ohio’s Republican leaders and the state’s high court were unable to agree on how to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative districts for the 2022 election, so temporary maps will be used instead. This means that before the 2024 election, new districts will need to be approved.
With the retirement of Republican Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who joined the court’s three Democrats in opposing the redistricting maps, Republicans are likely to have a lot easier time passing new maps this time around. New legislative districts will be drawn by the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which was de facto chaired by Huffman the last time around and must be approved by the Ohio General Assembly.
Decreases in Individual Income Tax Rates: Ohio lawmakers have consistently lowered income-tax rates since 2005, with the highest bracket seeing a reduction of nearly half. However, in the last session, about a third of senators in Ohio endorsed a bill to gradually eliminate the income tax over the course of ten years.
Despite the failure of the previous attempt, several legislators and observers believe that, with Merrin as a speaker, lawmakers would try to either repeal or pass new reductions to the state income tax. The income tax brought in over $11 billion last year, so eliminating it would require harsh choices on how to pay for it, whether through reduced spending, increased taxes, or a mix of the two.
Getting Right Down to Business: Ohio’s legislature is mandated by law to meet on January 3 but often takes a few weeks off before returning to work once the governor has unveiled his proposed state budget. Although no session days or committee hearings are listed for the Ohio Senate until January 31, it appears that the House will be in session twice in January.
The House committees are set to begin on January 5th, and the House is slated to meet twice in the month. Republicans in the House have announced the creation of two new House committees: the Elections and Apportionment Committee (which will oversee redistricting, among other responsibilities), and the Public Safety Committee (which will review legislation pertaining to law enforcement that was previously assigned to the House Transportation or House Criminal Justice Committees).
While committee meetings are scheduled for Thursday, Merrin is not likely to announce chairpersons until Wednesday. Also, as former Speaker Bob Cupp gives the gavel to new Speaker-elect Tim Merrin, most of the Republican leadership staff from the previous session have left their positions.
Some people are worried about how rapidly things are getting started. Cincinnati Republican and former House majority floor leader Bill Seitz said, “I suppose you can fly a jet without all the equipment on the plane, but it’s a risky thing to do.” Seitz will be taking a more passive role in the legislature this year.
Stewart, though, argued that legislators would be better served by tackling proposals promptly rather than letting them languish until the end of the two-year session at the end of 2024. According to Stewart, “we want to give those laws enough time to pass again” because “I think some of these good ideas that were offered in 2022 just didn’t have enough runway to get off the ground.”