What to expect in Ohio's 2020 lame-duck session: Stand your ground, House Bill 6, more

Jessie Balmert Anna Staver
Cincinnati Enquirer
Ohio lawmakers will pass several pieces of legislation in the coming month before the slate is wiped clean.

COLUMBUS – It's the final countdown of Ohio's legislative calendar, and that means lawmakers have a month to send a slew of complicated, and often controversial, bills to Gov. Mike DeWine's desk.

Ohio lawmakers meet for two-year sessions. At the end of the session, the slate is wiped clean, and any bill that doesn't pass must be reintroduced.

The final months of a session are called "lame duck" because some lawmakers will not be returning in 2021 after losing their seats to term limits or challengers in the November election. 

All of these last-ditch efforts to pass legislation can get a bit chaotic. Here's a breakdown of what to expect in this final month. 

Curbing DeWine's power 

Ohio's GOP-controlled Legislature is committed to limiting the ability of DeWine's administration to impose limits on both Ohioans and their businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Take Senate Bill 311, which DeWine has promised to veto. That bill would prohibit DeWine's state health department from requiring people to quarantine or isolate if they haven't been directly exposed or diagnosed with a disease. 

Another proposal, House Bill 621, would prohibit DeWine from closing small businesses if their competitors, such as Walmart or Kroger, are permitted to remain open. Small businesses would need to comply with the same safety protocols to avoid closures. 

Senate Bill 374 and House Bill 757 both aim to lift DeWine's 10 p.m. last call order on bars and restaurants. 

DeWine has promised to veto any legislation that hampers his ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, calling such proposals "dangerous." But lawmakers say these bills would provide needed checks and balances to DeWine's power.  

After a veto, lawmakers would need a three-fifths majority in each chamber – 60 of 99 representatives and 20 of 33 senators – to override DeWine's wishes. That can be a big lift, especially around the holidays.  

House Bill 6 repeal 

Starting Jan. 1, Ohioans' electric bills will have a new fee that goes toward two nuclear plants in northern Ohio, then-owned by FirstEnergy Solutions and now called Energy Harbor. 

The legislation behind that fee, House Bill 6, is at the center of a federal investigation. That FBI probe alleges energy companies paid nearly $61 million in bribes to help Rep. Larry Householder win control of the House, pass a $1 billion bailout for the plants and defend that law against a ballot initiative to block it. 

After Householder and four others were arrested in July, DeWine called House Bill 6 "forever tainted." Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said he would "go back and rip it out." House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, promised an "open and thorough process for repealing House Bill 6 and replacing it with thoughtful legislation Ohioans can have confidence in."

None of that has happened. 

The Perry Nuclear Plant, owned by Energy Harbor, could close eventually if lawmakers repeal House Bill 6.

Lawmakers have options if they want to repeal the nuclear bailout. House Bill 746, sponsored by Rep. Laura Lanese, R-Grove City, and Rep. Dave Greenspan, R-Westlake, would repeal the new law entirely. That would return fees tied to incentivizing energy efficiency and renewable energy. 

House Bill 772, led by Rep. Mark Romanchuk, R-Ontario, would eliminate the nuclear, coal and solar subsidies, ax about $350 million guaranteed to FirstEnergy through a "decoupling" provision and offer refunds for fees already collected.   

But it's not clear whether legislators want to pass a law that could close the nuclear plants. Despite Householder's arrest, those who supported House Bill 6 have faced little political backlash.

“Every member of this body and every member of the Ohio Senate who voted for House Bill 6 won re-election," said Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, before a Democratic attempt to repeal House Bill 6 was tabled. “There is not a single member of this chamber who has been convicted or pled guilty to a durn thing."

Householder, who has pleaded not guilty to the racketeering charge, voted to table the attempted repeal of House Bill 6. 

Stand your ground and other gun proposals

Ohio’s big lame-duck gun fight could be over the duty to retreat.

Senate Bill 383 would allow Ohioans to fire a gun in self-defense without trying to retreat first anywhere they are legally permitted to be.

Sometimes called "stand your ground," the legislation would expand where Ohioans can shoot in self-defense, defense of another or defense of their residence. Current law allows a shooter to fire at someone in his home and his vehicle. 

Senate Bill 317 would allow teachers to carry guns inside schools without police-officer training. Instead, local school boards would set a requirement on how much training is required.

Proposed changes to House Bill 248 would dramatically change Ohio gun laws, allowing 18-year-olds to own guns, eliminating duty to retreat from businesses and allowing patrons to bring guns into bars while drinking. However, this Christmas tree bill might have too many ornaments to pass easily. 

DeWine will continue to push for increased penalties against those sell or provide guns to those who are banned from having them. Following the Dayton shooting, DeWine announced several gun law reforms in Senate Bill 221, but those ideas have been unpopular with Ohio's GOP-controlled Legislature.

Capital budget 

In March, lawmakers expected to quickly pass a $2.6 billion capital budget for construction projects like school improvements, road repairs and even local park and community center upgrades.

But the COVID-19 pandemic hit, state revenues plummeted and conversations about the spending package were put on the back burner until now.    

“It’s a priority, and we are working on it with the House right now,” Obhof said. “I’m not sure how large it will be compared to prior years.” 

Nearly all the money in the capital budget gets spent by the state, but the pre-pandemic plan was to give $150 million to local communities for all kinds of projects. A central Ohio partnership, for example, submitted 41 requests for things like a new addiction center, renovations on the Ohio Theatre and a new hanger at the Knox County Regional Airport. 

DeWine cut about $775 million to balance the last fiscal year’s budget back in May. And when he was asked about the capital budget in late March, DeWine said some programs “are going to have to, unfortunately, take a hit.” 

School funding 

Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, has spent seven years trying to simplify how Ohio funds its K-12 public schools.  

State Rep. Robert Cupp, R-Lima, left, and Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, have worked for months to reform Ohio's unconstitutional school funding formula.

He leaves office in December due to term limits and hopes that maybe, just maybe, he’ll get a new funding formula passed in the final weeks of his tenure. 

House Bill 305 would create a new per-pupil cost and then subtract from that the capacity each district has to raise that money on their own (family incomes and property values). Cupp said there’s a major effort to get that through the House.

But the Senate is where things are likely to fall apart.  

Leaders in the Senate, both incoming and outgoing, are hesitant to rewrite how Ohio pays for its public schools before they have a clear picture of next year’s budget – especially since the proposed formula could cost upwards of $2 billion over 10 years.  

Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, will lead the Senate starting in January, and he’s already convened his own working group with the goal of folding any new funding formula in the state budget next summer.  

Limits to abortion access

Last year, DeWine signed the "heartbeat bill" to ban abortions as early as six weeks into a woman's pregnancy. That was quickly stalled by a legal challenge. 

This year, abortion opponents have other goals. Senate Bill 27 would require fetal remains to be buried or cremated. The legislation stems from an investigation DeWine conducted while he was state attorney general into whether Planned Parenthood sold fetal body parts here. It didn't, the probe found. 

Senate Bill 260 would ban medication abortions performed via telemedicine. The proposal would ban a physician from providing abortion-inducing drugs without being physically present when the dose is taken. Violating that would lead to a fourth-degree felony. 

Senate Bill 208 would require doctors to put the same effort into saving an infant born despite an abortion attempt as they would a child born prematurely. But opponents of the bill say Ohio law already bans abortions after 20 weeks gestation and has penalties for abortion manslaughter.

Senate Bill 155 would require doctors to inform women about the option to reverse a medication abortion, a claim not supported by the medical establishment

These bills await approval in the House and the signature of DeWine, who has repeatedly supported limits to abortion. 

Sports betting 

Most Ohio lawmakers want to let people bet on the Buckeyes, Bengals and Browns.  

“It’s a concept, in my opinion, whose time has come,” Sen. John Eklund, R-Chardon, said.  

And yet, it took more than a year to decide which state agency should police the new industry. 

The four sponsors tentatively agreed to let the Ohio Casino Commission police the new industry, establish an 8% tax on revenue generated at sportsbooks and spend the $30 million that would bring in annually on extracurricular activities for school children and gambling addiction services.  

But time is running out, and there are still more details to discuss.  

Ohio is headed into a challenging budget year in 2021 with state revenues expected to be down significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The money from sports betting won’t solve the problems, but both Eklund and Kelly said every dollar helps.