In what could be the last full legislative day before November elections, boozy ice cream, grocery bags and gun stores drove the Ohio General Assembly’s agenda.
House Republicans, who generally do not wear masks and have skipped on COVID-19 social distancing accommodations in the chamber, passed legislation Wednesday to ban local governments from imposing any tax or fee on the use of plastic bags for the next year.
Its lead sponsor, Rep. George Lang, R-West Chester Twp., said the bill is “pro-business” and will prevent the spread of COVID-19 via reusable grocery bags.
In the Senate, Republicans passed a bill sponsored by Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, that would prevent public officials from issuing orders closing firearm stores. Ohio’s stay-at-home order explicitly allowed gun stores to operate, but Obhof said this bill would apply to any future health crisis.
The chamber also passed a resolution that opposes both the excessive use of force from officers as well as defunding the police.
“Defund the police” became a mantra of a growing racial justice movement seeking to shift police funding toward social services. It came to prominence amid an increased national focus this summer on unarmed Black people dying at the hands of white police officers.
Other legislation was sent to Gov. Mike DeWine, negotiated in conference committee by the House and Senate, that allows for the sale of alcoholic ice cream and broadens businesses’ ability to sell alcohol outdoors.
Generally absent from the day’s legislative action: legislative solutions to a pandemic that has killed nearly 4,700 Ohioans, or progress on repealing House Bill 6, a bailout of two failing nuclear plants at the center of a federal racketeering indictment that has ensnared former House Speaker Larry Householder and four lobbyists and operatives.
Federal prosecutors allege FirstEnergy Corp. spent millions, funneled through various middleman entities, to enrich Householder and his alleged conspirators personally and politically in return for passage of the bill. They also allegedly fielded company funds to thwart a ballot referendum to repeal the bill. All five have pleaded not guilty.
While a special House committee has been formed to consider the repeal of HB 6, it has yet to vote to send a repeal to the floor.
Republican state Attorney General Dave Yost, meanwhile, filed a civil suit Wednesday in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas seeking an injunction to halt ratepayer fees at the heart of the legislation.
The fees, footed by individual and business ratepayers, kick in Jan. 1, 2021. Yost requested a judge deem the alleged bribery scheme “unlawful” and impose certain civil penalties on the conspirators as well.
House Democrats, meanwhile, accused Republicans, who control the chamber, of stalling efforts to repeal HB 6 and using parliamentary rules to block Democrats from forcing a floor vote to repeal the legislation.
“To the everyday Ohioan, it could seem like Republicans are actually calling us back to work and doing something,” said Minority Leader Emilia Sykes in a statement. “But the only thing it seems they are doing is protecting their positions at the expense of taxpayers.”
Householder, who was dethroned as Speaker but shielded from expulsion from the chamber by Republican colleagues, attended Wednesday’s session.
He even took the unprecedented step of voting in favor of legislation specifically crafted to enable his ouster from the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethics.
On the pandemic, the Senate passed legislation channeling $650 million in congressional funds provided through the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act” to local governments.
“What magic law do you want me to want me to pass that will increase the number of tests?” he said when asked why lawmakers aren’t addressing COVID-19 health issues. “What’s your magic number for tests? Every single issue that everyone deals with is not an issue for the Ohio Revised Code.”
The Senate also passed legislation Wednesday to strip the Ohio Department of Health of its ability to issue orders isolating or quarantining people who have not been directly exposed or diagnosed to an infectious disease. Obhof said in an interview this was targeted toward the stay-at-home order DeWine issued in the early days of the pandemic.
The legislation would also allow lawmakers to unilaterally rescind ODH orders.
Democrats, joined by a short list of Republicans, argued the legislation strips the health department of tools to respond to pressing, and quickly developing infectious diseases and other threats to the public health.
Republicans argued the health orders are a form of “government overreach.” In a floor speeches, lead sponsor Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napolean, said the bill doesn’t “restrict” DeWine’s ability to respond to the pandemic, it just reinserts the Legislature to the decision table.
DeWine has said in the past he’d veto legislation curtailing ODH powers during the pandemic and has made good on the threat once to date.
In an interview after the session, Obhof said there’s an “if-needed” Senate session scheduled for October but it’s unclear as whether the Senate will convene. He said SB 311 isn’t a reflection of the success of DeWine’s stay-at-home order, but a question of how government can respond to an emergency.
“There are some legitimate questions to be asked on the limits on government authority,” he said.