Bills could be in jeopardy after EdChoice amendments added then stripped

Ohio House
Photo from the Ohio House of Representatives website.

The EdChoice voucher program is still being debated in the Ohio legislature, but the amendments created in an attempt to resolve the issue could bring collateral damage for the bills to which they were hurriedly attached.

As both the House and Senate deliberated over the private school voucher program, the amendments the chambers proposed were attached first to House Bill 9, then almost attached to Senate Bill 89, but ultimately moved to Senate Bill 120. 

All the bills were related to education, but were not created with EdChoice in mind. 

Senate Bill 120 set out to authorize the state auditor to conduct performance audits on higher education institutions and modify College Credit Plus informational meeting requirements, along with revising the public-private partnership law regarding campus housing. 

“Believe it or not, the underlying bill is a good bill…that passed out of this chamber unanimously and also had many co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle over here,” said SB 120 co-sponsor, state Sen. Robert McColley, R-Napoleon, before voting against the EdChoice amendments.

Senate Bill 89 aimed to make changes to the compensation of joint vocational school districts and to STEM school report cards.

House Bill 9 was written to analyze state universities’ transfer appeals process and student records review.

House Bill 9’s co-sponsor, Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, said the bill still has the possibility of getting out of conference committee, but she is frustrated that the bill was amended in the last-minute deal.

“It’s playing games with a good bill that could help college students graduate and making me wonder now, is this a bill that I can even support,” Sweeney told the Capital Journal. “This process does not allow any stakeholders to have input and even any legislators to know what they’re voting on.”

House Bill 9 remains in conference committee after being taken there when the House didn’t concur with the Senate’s amendments to it. A conference committee can last an entire legislative term, but has not been taken back up yet.

The process of attaching amendments to other bills is a common one, but one that doesn’t have too many rules regulating it. 

When the legislature wants to change the language of a law that has already passed, they need only join those changes to a bill that has seen action in the legislature, but hasn’t passed through completely.

“That way, they don’t have to go through (the entire legislative process), they don’t have to go through the three readings, any of that,” said Stephen Dyer, a former state representative and current education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio. “You can pass it in a day rather than waiting the three weeks it would usually take.”

The Ohio Constitution put in place the “single-subject rule,” which limits bills to one topic of law or policy. This rule, however, has been used flexibly by the governing body.

“It’s very, very, generously interpreted by the Ohio Supreme Court,” Dyer said.

Because those in the judicial branch don’t want to interfere with other branches of government except in very special cases, the legislative branch is given room to decide whether the single-subject rule is being used appropriately.

Choosing the bill on which amendments get attached is likely a strategic decision, one made primarily by House and Senate leadership. 

“Today it’s very much concentrated in the speaker and (Senate) president,” according to Dyer.

Committee chairs that have looked through the bill and sponsors who authored the bill have some say, but it’s really up to leadership to decide whether a bill gets amended.

However, should the bill be left without the amendments after entering conference committee, the bill dies as a whole, no matter what its original language was.

So, while the EdChoice solution is still being tossed around, bills that happen to be brought up during the fight might fall by the wayside. 

It’s not ideal, according to Dyer and many legislators who spoke during the House’s debate on pushing the EdChoice deadline back, but it’s currently the way things go at the Statehouse.

“The legislature is infuriating at times, and it affects people’s lives, but that’s the nature of democracy,” Dyer said. 

Senate Bill 89 is scheduled for a fifth hearing Wednesday in the House’s Primary and Secondary Education Committee. 

Senate Bill 120 was signed into law by the Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine last week with the extension of the EdChoice deadline.