Fresh from a bitter leadership fight that sharply divided the Ohio House, lawmakers will return to the Statehouse for the first time Wednesday to begin the job of governing in a new environment.
The 133rd General Assembly’s top priority will be the first two-year budget with Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s stamp on it.
There is talk of again revamping how Ohio funds K-12 education, possibly developing a framework for legal sports betting now that the U.S. Supreme Court has opened that door, picking up where the last session left off with criminal sentencing reform, and re-examining the generation of electricity and the fate of nuclear power within the state’s borders.
Still unresolved is the long-term solvency of the state’s unemployment compensation fund, what the state can do to stop fertilizer runoff into Lake Erie, and how the state can continue to invest in highways and bridges as money borrowed against the Ohio Turnpike runs its course.
Everything is on the table for debate on that last issue, new House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford) said Friday, including the possibility of a hike in the state’s gas tax.
“What are you going to do, drive on dirt streets?” he said. “I was faced with this in the early 2000s. It’s certainly always a very difficult issue to talk about and to try to sell, but at the end of the day, that revenue stream is a user fee.
“Quite frankly, Ohio has always benefited from our transportation system. … I think it’s our responsibility to make sure we maintain it,” he said.
And in what has almost become a perennial issue, expect the controversial bill that would all but outlaw an abortion in the state once a fetal heartbeat is detected to be revisited after former Gov. John Kasich’s veto in December. That is especially true given that previously divided factions of Ohio’s pro-life movement have coalesced behind it and Mr. DeWine has said he would sign it.
All this will take place amid promises from Mr. Householder of a new day of bipartisan cooperation and respect in the House. The chamber is coming out of a session in which former Speaker Cliff Rosenberger gave up the podium and resigned his House seat amid an ongoing FBI investigation of his overseas travel involving lobbyists with the payday lending industry.
Mr. Rosenberger’s chosen successor, Rep. Ryan Smith (R., Gallipolis), was elected over a Householder placeholder to finish the remaining months of the session.
With Democrats’ help, the chamber turned to Mr. Householder, a former speaker who’d left 14 years ago under a cloud of his own — an FBI investigation into fund-raising by himself and top aides and allegations of strong-armed tactics. The investigation closed without the filing of charges.
The latest battle also claimed Minority Leader Fred Strahorn (D., Dayton). He was in the House the last time Mr. Householder was speaker and had urged his caucus to support Mr. Smith. He resigned after coming out on the losing end of the vote.
All three of northwest Ohio’s new faces in the House — Reps. Paula Hicks-Hudson (D., Toledo), Lisa Sobecki (D., Toledo), and Jon Cross (R., Kenton) — supported Mr. Householder.
“I think he’s making some of those promises come true,” said Ms. Hicks-Hudson, a former Toledo mayor who replaced term-limited former Rep. Michael Ashford.
“He’s meeting with members of [Democratic] leadership, so I think so,” she said. “But it’s also my job as a duly elected member of the House to remind him and also advocate for the people of District 44.”
Mr. Strahorn’s resignation created an opening for the freshman lawmaker. Ms. Hicks-Hudson is expected to be formally elected assistant minority whip, the fourth-highest post among Democrats, on Wednesday.
Republicans, however, hold a supermajority of 61-38 in the chamber. They also hold a 24-9 supermajority in the Senate where Sen. Larry Obhof (R., Medina) coasted to re-election as president.
Former state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) replaced term-limited Sen. Edna Brown. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans plan to interview Rep. Theresa Gavarone (R., Bowling Green) and Monclova Township Trustee Barbara Lang on Monday to determine which of them should be appointed to replace former Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green). He recently resigned to become Mr. DeWine’s chancellor of higher education.
Ms. Sobecki, the former president of Toledo Public Schools who replaced Ms. Fedor in the lower chamber’s 45th District, said she had a good conversation with Mr. Householder.
“I come from a labor background,” she said. “We saw eye to eye on not supporting right-to-work. … I think we’ve put that to rest here in Ohio, and we can get back to business. [Past fights over labor] sucked a lot of energy from everyone, and I’m excited to get back to doing the work that we need to be doing, the people’s work.”
Mr. Cross replaces former state Rep. Robert Sprague (R., Findlay), who was just elected state treasurer. This marks the first time in nearly two decades that the largely rural 83rd District has been represented by someone outside Hancock County.
Mr. Cross, former CEO and economic development director for the nonprofit Hardin County Chamber and Business Alignment Board, said he believes Mr. Householder can bridge the gap in the House.
“Listen, we’re all tired of what we see in Washington, D.C., and what’s happening on TV,” he said. “I haven’t found too many people who are very happy with Congress right now. We don’t have time for that nonsense here. We certainly will respectfully disagree, but I think statesmanship, professionalism, and building relationships are core values that we need to instill.”
Ms. Hicks-Hudson is no stranger to the Statehouse. As mayor she found herself in hearings testifying before legislative committees about the effects of their actions on cities. She fought proposed legislation that would have undermined Toledo’s lead abatement ordinance and a budget provision shifting collection of municipal taxes to a state entity.
This time she’ll be on the other side of the table.
“I’ll be asking questions, gathering information, as opposed to providing information,” she said. “And hopefully I’ll be able to impact legislation from the inside as opposed to coming after it’s been proposed, helping to craft it, and tailoring it for the benefit of our citizens.
“I’m hopeful we will work on how to strengthen local government, and by strengthening it, strengthening the state of Ohio,” Ms. Hicks-Hudson said. “That’s one of our major challenges. I would not have taken on this challenge if I didn’t think I could make a difference.”
With his economic background, Mr. Cross is looking at overhauling work force development. He’s talking about possible privatization of such programs or at least offering tax incentives to businesses or college loan assistance to students to infuse Ohio’s work force.
“Site selection always used to be that utilities were most important,” he said. “If you don’t have power, you’re not going to have a manufacturing firm, or hospital, or anything. But people are now just as important as power … because if you don’t have someone to work, whether working a manufacturing machine or welding or nursing, we’re in trouble.”
Ms. Sobecki has pledged to sit down with all 98 of her colleagues during her first 100 days in office. While she said she hopes to focus on issues such as school funding and protecting Lake Erie, she downplayed suggestions that promises of bipartisan cooperation have sometimes failed to yield fruit in the past.
“I’ll challenge you,” she said. “In four months, let’s have another conversation, and you ask me, ‘How is that bipartisan[ship] going?’ And I’m going to bring my Republican friends with me, and we’re going to talk about it with you.”