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By Anna Staver
Posted Mar 23, 2020
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has a list of things he wants state lawmakers to address when they return to Columbus, but House Republicans have a draft list of their own — setting up a potential showdown over what will be in the coronavirus relief bill when lawmakers return to Columbus on Wednesday.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle The Dispatch and Cincinnati Enquirer spoke to agreed that the legislature needs to set up a process to finish the primary election, waive state testing requirements for K-12 students, change when Ohio’s state taxes are due, stop water and electricity shutoffs and make changes to unemployment rules.
But interviews revealed significant differences over whether to select another in-person voting date and whether to include certain items in an omnibus bill, including changes to state ethics laws and the rules governing petition circulators.
“Our goal is to work with the governor to protect the health and safety of Ohioans,” Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said in a statement. “If we hold session this week, our consideration of bills will be focused on the current crisis and limited to issues that are time-sensitive or directly address needs created by the pandemic.”
And looming over the coming voting sessions this week was the big question: How can a body of legislators gather safely in Columbus without spreading COVID-19.
Neither chamber has released any protocol for sessions to the public.
Four state senators in Georgia recently tested positive for coronavirus — forcing the entire legislature into self-quarantine, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitutional.
And several U.S. senators are in self-quarantine after coming into contact with someone who had the virus or with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who announced on Sunday that he tested positive for COVID-19.
State lawmakers generally agree that Ohioans need a clear and definitive process for finishing the primary election, but they disagree on what that should be.
The first question is whether to set another date for in-person voting or do it all by mail.
House Republicans and Democrats in both chambers want the state to send absentee ballots in the mail to anyone who still wants to vote. They argue it still could be unsafe for people to congregate in May or June, and Ohio shouldn’t put itself in the position of having to change its primary date again.
“I think that adds another uncertainty,” said Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron. “I think we should be more sure-footed in times like these.”
One proposal being floated would set the deadline on April 28, but Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office said it likely wouldn’t be possible for the state to send and receive ballots in that time-frame.
LaRose proposed extending voting until June 2 and asked the legislature to give him discretion over whether to hold in-person voting on that day. He also wants to send absentee ballot requests to voters.
Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, said his preference would be to defer to what LaRose thinks is best.
ELECTION LAWS AND PUBLIC CORRUPTION
One idea being floated by House Republicans would lower the bar for campaigns trying to make Ohio’s ballot in two ways. It would get rid of a requirement that people getting paid to collect signatures file paperwork with the state, and it would let campaigns gather signatures while election officials review the ones they submitted earlier for validity.
Another idea would change the way public corruption cases (i.e. charges brought against elected officials) are prosecuted by moving them to the county where the accused lives rather than Franklin County.
Obhof didn’t address these ideas specifically in his statement, but the Senate President did make it clear that he intends to only work on issues directly related to the pandemic.
TAXES, CAR TITLES AND LICENSES
The governor’s office already told Ohioans they weren’t going to get in trouble if their driver’s license expired, but these proposals would expand and codify those delays.
The legislation would allow any state issued license — including concealed carry permits for firearms — be extended potentially until December 1, 2020.
It would also delay the filing of state taxes until the new, federal deadline on July 15.
EVICTIONS, UTILITIES AND UNEMPLOYMENT
“The week delay is being waived; work requirements are being waived,” Dolan said when asked about the changes lawmakers plan to make to Ohio’s unemployment system.
But what they’re not fixing just yet is the unemployment compensation fund.
“Those are economic issues we have to do in the near future but not this week,” Dolan said.
He’s also working on a requirement that water companies not disconnect services for nonpayment and reconnect anyone who was recently shut off.
And State Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, has introduced bills that would block evictions and the shutoff of other utilities like electricity and gas.
SCHOOL TESTING AND VOUCHERS
DeWine, Senate President Obhof and House Speaker Larry Householder all agree that if and when Ohio’s K-12 students return to their physical classrooms this year, statewide testing shouldn’t be something to worry about.
“I fully support any efforts to waive testing and report card requirements for this school year,” Obhof tweeted. “We will work with @GovMikeDeWine to take whatever action is necessary.
But what remains uncertain is how long the list of public school buildings where students are eligible to take vouchers will be come April 1. If state lawmakers do nothing in March, the list will grow to more than 1,2000 and include schools in some of the highest rated districts in the state.
House Republicans proposed letting students renew their current vouchers but prohibit “any new performance voucher for the 2020-21 school year.”
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