On June 16, the Senate introduced Senate Bill 186 (S.B. 186), which would authorize the Ohio Elections Commission to hear complaints regarding violations of the laws prohibiting use of public funds to support or oppose a candidate campaign or the passage of a levy or bond issue. The provisions in Ohio law that prohibit such activity remain essentially unchanged, but the addition of jurisdiction for the Ohio Elections Commission, referrals to local prosecutors and the penalty provisions are new.
Ohio Revised Code Section 9.03 (R.C. 9.03) prohibits the use of public funds to communicate information that “supports or opposes the nomination or election of a candidate for public office, the investigation, prosecution, or recall of a public official, or the passage of a levy or bond issue.” R.C. 9.03 also prohibits the use of funds to compensate a public employee for activity to influence the outcome of an election. The law is clear, however, that public employees are permitted to attend meetings to present information about the political subdivision’s finances, activities and governmental actions even though an election issue is discussed or debated at the meeting, so long as the presentation is not designed to influence the outcome of the election.
S.B. 186 also impacts R.C. 3315.07, which contains similar prohibitions related to school district expenditures. Existing law remains unchanged and provides that a board of education cannot use public funds to support or oppose the passage of a school levy or bond issue or to compensate an employee for time spent to influence an election. However, the statute gives school districts broad latitude to provide “information the board considers helpful in keeping students, parents, employees, and residents aware of the operation of the school district.”
Amendments made to S.B. 186 would give the Ohio Elections Commission jurisdiction over complaints related to alleged violations of these laws. If passed as currently drafted, the Elections Commission could assess administrative fines or order those who violate the law to pay restitution. The proposed legislation would also require the Commission to send a copy of a complaint to the appropriate prosecutor’s office. Creating an exception to other election law violations, S.B. 185 would allow a prosecutor to start a prosecution “before, during, or after” the Ohio Election Commission’s proceedings. A copy of the bill as introduced can be found here.