The 129th Ohio General Assembly has been described as the most meaningful, most reform-minded, and most enthused in recent history. The aggressive agenda set forth by Governor John Kasich, coupled with the solid GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate, have resulted in the passage of almost 150 bills. This is a far cry from the previous General Assembly, where partisan politics helped set a modern record for legislative futility, with the passage of a mere 58 bills. The legislation passed into law over the past three months includes many bills with bipartisan support. Senate President Tom Niehaus noted that 80% of the nearly 200 bills that passed his chamber received Democratic support.
This session’s bills address a variety of issues affecting many different Ohioans. Some of the changes include:
- The Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools. The plan makes several changes in the school district’s relationship with teachers and charter schools with the hopes of making education better for the city’s children.
- A third-grade reading guarantee. This bill raises public education standards across Ohio by requiring that students who do not read up to a certain level be kept from moving on to the fourth grade. Some exceptions do apply. The education bill was part of Governor Kasich’s mid-biennium review of the state’s budget and policy initiatives.
- Safe Harbor Act implements a victim-centered approach to human trafficking. The law protects the juvenile victims of human trafficking from prosecution and diverts them into treatment. The penalty for trafficking will include a mandatory prison term. New statutes will also take aim at the customers of prostitutes. The law also provides that the seized assets of human traffickers may be used to create a fund to help the victims of human trafficking.
- A ban on texting while driving. Ohio is now among many states that have banned texting while driving. Though it is a secondary offense for adults, it is a primary offense for juvenile drivers. The ban applies to all electronic hand-held devices
- Registration requirements for restricted species. After the incident in Zanesville this past fall, where over 50 dangerous wild animals were released into the community, new laws ban the acquisition, sale, and breeding of restricted species starting in 2014. Those who currently own these species may keep their animals provided they register them with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and comply with the guidelines regarding caging and care.
- Tax credits for employers who encourage telecommuting. A new tax credit is now available to companies whose employees work mostly from home.
- No interest rate cap for in-state credit card companies. Ohio credit card companies are no longer required to abide by the state’s 25% interest rate cap, which out-of-state credit card issuers have long disregarded.
- Redrawn library district boundaries. The State Library Board of Trustees has been asked to redraw the boundaries of any intersecting library districts to prevent any one district from being double-taxed.
- Classroom-based driver’s education may be replaced with online instruction. Ohio teens preparing to earn their driver’s licenses may now replace the required 24 hours of classroom instruction with a new, state-approved online course. Eight hours of behind-the-wheel instruction is still necessary.
- “Fracking” disclosure requirements. As oil and gas issues continue to dominate state headlines, the legislature mandated that drilling companies disclose information about the chemicals they use during the hydraulic fracturing process. However, details about chemicals deemed company trade secrets might still be kept confidential.
- Reformed collateral sanctions for felons who have been released from prison. This law allows for the expansion of options for sealing criminal records and the lifting of some restrictions on occupational licenses that felons previously could not obtain. It seeks to eliminate barriers to employment for ex-felons. The law also eliminates prohibitions against sealing juvenile records in certain cases.
- Pension bills are passed in the Senate and will be considered in the House this fall. Several bills addressing the longevity of Ohio’s five public pension plans have passed from the Senate to the House where they will receive further consideration. Changes could include increased member contributions, recalculated final average salaries, benefits and cost-of-living adjustments, and longer terms of service before members are eligible for disability coverage. Organizations representing state and local government officials and employees are weighing the merits and consequences of the recommended changes.
- Increased funding for park and farmland preservation. Legislators added $42 million for the Clean Ohio program, in addition to the $6 million set forth in the previous budget bill. $36 million of the new funds will be directed toward green space projects while the remaining $6 million will facilitate farmland preservation.
These changes reflect just a handful of the bills enacted into law during this active legislative session. It is anticipated that many additional bills, perhaps more controversial in nature, will be passed in the fall’s lame duck session following the November election.