Ohio legislators discuss the Christmas tree bill, which limits local control on multiple fronts

The summary atop Substitute Senate Bill Number 331 (SB331) consists of just 250 words, but it incorporates a staggering assortment of legislative policies.

Passed by the state legislature during the December lame duck session and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich on Dec. 19, the bill confronts everything from minimum-wage law and dog-breeding practices to cockfighting and bestiality.

It's also, one could argue, at odds with the Ohio Constitution, which includes language stating, “No bill shall contain more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title.”

The “one-subject rule” is designed to prevent these types of piecemeal, Christmas tree bills — so named because the legislation is adorned with numerous unrelated riders and amendments — though it's historically been ignored no matter which party is in power. This is doubly true of the Wild West that is the lame duck session, which Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, compared with a student pulling an all-nighter to finish a term paper the day before it's due. (In 2016, for instance, the General Assembly crammed through more than 40 bills in the final weeks before adjourning for the holiday break.)

But even among this field, SB331 stands out for its audacity, tethering together bits of legislation in a way that feels like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with pieces pulled from multiple kits.

“You could be in favor of one thing [in the bill] and opposed to another, and you find yourself in this quandary of how to vote, which is why we have a single-subject rule in the legislature, to keep that from happening,” said Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus. “It really causes problems, because people are forced to pick and choose through provisions that really have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and that's not the way it should be.”

SB331, for one, incorporated at least three major pieces of policy legislation: an amendment barring cities from setting their own minimum wage (a preemptive strike against a forthcoming special election ballot measure in Cleveland seeking to phase in a $15 minimum wage); the so-called “Petland amendment,” which ensures that cities can't limit outlets from which pet stores purchase puppies (animal welfare advocates opposed the law, saying it allows stores to purchase puppies from unregulated breeders); and a component that provides an expedited process for AT&T to install equipment upgrades. (Other parts of the bill, like those tied to bestiality and cockfighting, would have passed the Assembly with sweeping majorities no matter the circumstances.)

Though disconnected on the surface, all three function to either preempt existing local legislation or curtail local control, according to multiple lawmakers.

“There's no question that this is an attack on community freedom,” said Rep. Greta Johnson, D-Akron. “It's an attack on local control [and] on home rule. This is the result of good lobbyists and financial interests being met at the cost of the rules and procedures of the House being bent, broken and abandoned.”

“It seems ironic the majority party that prides itself on keeping local control has whittled it away with those three components on this one bill,” Rep. Patterson said.

Sen. Bob Peterson, R-Sabina, who sponsored the bill, declined comment via a spokesman, saying his focus was on the current session rather than rehashing the past.

Other lawmakers, however, noted the importance of pausing to examine previously passed legislation, particularly when debate is curtailed and there's little time for the public to break down the various parts and pieces of a complex, multifaceted bill.

“It's important to do things like we're doing right now — to talk about what's happening — and then people can make a decision whether they want this kind of stuff to continue,” Rep. Leland said. “Just because someone is able to muster enough votes to get something passed doesn't mean there's not a better way of doing something — or that there's not a better argument.”