COLUMBUS You can generally count on a few hot-button issues surfacing during every general assembly.
Abortion-, right-to-work and gun-related legislation come immediately to mind.
Often, the controversial stuff surfaces when you least expect it, turning what would be mundane legislation into the focus of interest groups’ attention and stirring debate and outrage.
That’s sort of what happened a few weeks back with the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation budget, one of the smaller two-year spending plans that lawmakers deal with around this time each session.
Republicans in the Ohio House added language to HB 27 that would bar individuals who are residing in the country illegally from receiving BWC benefits if they’re injured on the job.
On the one hand, the provision makes a certain amount of sense — proponents will tell you that “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented workers” or whatever you want to call them are already breaking the law by being here, and they shouldn’t benefitting from programs aimed at the law-abiding public.
On the other hand, nobody wants somebody who’s been hurt to be denied treatment. And opponents of the law change will point out that the onus should be on companies hiring such workers to pay for medical treatment if they are injured on the job.
That’s an over simplification for both sides, but you get the picture.
Whether the language that was added to HB 27 actually would address the issue is in question, however.
Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, who serves as chairman of the Senate’s Insurance and Financial Institutions Committee, the panel considering the bill, said he isn’t sure whether the House amendment would have the intended impact.
“There certainly has to be 60,000-70,000 illegal aliens in the state of Ohio,” he said. “Many of those undoubtedly are working, and undoubtedly a number of those have filed workers’ comp claim in the past. But since there is not a mechanism to currently track it, nor does this bill as I understand it that’s before us give a mechanism to adequately track it other than a voluntary checkoff, I’m not certain that that’s going to result in a whole bunch of people not checking the box.”
He added, “How you get it beyond just making a political statement or a policy statement and actually impact change on it, that’s yet to bet determined, I guess.”
Hottinger offered the comments to reporters after his committee’s initial hearing on HB 27, one of several budget bills moving through the legislature.
BWC Administrator Sarah Morrison told senators that the bureau has not taken a position on the budget amendment prohibiting “illegal and unauthorized aliens from receiving compensation and certain benefits and prohibits an employer from electing to cover those aliens.”
But she did say that the BWC was not currently positioned to track which immigrant workers were in the state illegally.
“As the [BWC] administrator indicated, right now they don’t even have a way of tracking how many illegal aliens or immigrants are actually collecting workers’ compensation,” Hottinger said later. “I’m interested in working with [members of the House] to see exactly what their intent is and to see if this language is doing what they’re intending.”
He added of the prospect of having workers check a box on a form or sign an affidavit about their citizenship, “If someone is in the country illegally, my guess would be is they’re likely to check that box illegally… What I’m not certain (of is) the practical ramifications… of that are.”
Marc Kovac covers the Ohio Statehouse for Gatehouse Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @OhioCapitalBlog.