The General Assembly passed and Governor Kasich signed the biennial operating budget, House Bill 153, just in time for the close of the current fiscal year. The bill includes authorization for $112.18 billion (state and federal) in spending over the next two years for all proposed expenditures of the state - from funding for state agencies to state support for local governments, schools and universities and property tax relief for all state residents. In addition to the spending it authorizes, House Bill 153 also stands as one of the most significant policy bills the General Assembly will adopt this session. Some of the more significant policy changes included a restructuring of the way Medicaid operates, changes to how public agencies can contract for construction projects, repeal of the estate tax and allowing for the Ohio Turnpike to be privatized. Final changes introduced during the conference committee process include:
- Adding a $130 million Medicaid reserve fund in case the more pessimistic caseload estimates come to pass;
- Adding InvestOhio to provide a 10 percent tax break on gains on investments in small Ohio companies;
- Increasing healthcare funding: by $86 million for nursing homes, by $94 million for PASSPORT, by $17 million for mental health and by $4 million for the developmental disabilities program;
- Adding funding for local governments: $45 million in the first year with another $5 million set aside for the smallest counties to receive at least $750,000 or what they got before. The additional $45 million in the second year goes to a fund to encourage governments to make changes to become more efficient; and
- Providing for performance evaluation standards for teachers and principals developed by the Department of Education. Those standards will also be used for compensation evaluations in certain districts.
Following the General Assembly's passage of the bill, Governor Kasich had one last opportunity to put his stamp on the bill before signing it. Ohio's governors have broad powers to veto individual items in spending bills and Governor Kasich used his veto to remove seven items from the bill, the most significant of which was removing the state's right of first refusal to repurchase any of the state prisons that are privatized under new provisions included in the bill.
Other key pieces of legislation that saw action in the final days of work of the General Assembly included:
Criminal sentencing reform (House Bill 86) - signed by the Governor - The new law is intended to help clamp down on the inflow of short-time offenders, diverting low-level, nonviolent criminals into community settings while making treatment and programming more widely available and allowing prisoners to earn time off sentences for program participation.
Election reform (House Bill 194) - passed both chambers - The reform measures are designed to use technology to verify and ensure the accuracy of voter information; establish simpler, statewide absentee and provisional voting standards; and moves the presidential primary from March to May.
Oil and gas drilling on state land (House Bill 133) - signed by the Governor - The bill calls for the creation the Oil and Gas Leasing Board and establishes a procedure by which the Board may enter into leases for oil and gas production on land owned or under the control of a state agency for the purpose of providing funding for capital and operating costs for the agency.
Abortion bills (House Bills 78, 79 and 125) - passed by House - House Bill 78 prohibits abortions post-viability. House Bill 79 prohibits qualified health plans from providing coverage for certain abortions. House Bill 125, the controversial "Heartbeat Bill," prohibits all abortions once there is a detectable fetal heartbeat. Speaker of the House William Batchelder (R-Medina) said that the House passed both House Bill 125 and House Bill 78 because members do not know which bill the federal courts will overturn.
Redistricting Procedures Begin in General Assembly
The Legislative Task Force on Redistricting, Reapportionment and Demographic Research held its organizational meeting this month, starting the redistricting process for both General Assembly and Congressional districts. The General Assembly is responsible for drawing the lines for Ohio's Congressional districts, while the State Apportionment Board draws the lines for the General Assembly districts. The Legislative Task Force was created in 2004 to provide assistance to each in the drawing of the districts. Members of the task force include Speaker of the House William Batchelder, Senate President Tom Niehaus (R-New Richmond) House Minority Leader Armond Budish (D-Beachwood), Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro (D-Hubbard), House Republicans Chief of Staff Troy Judy and Senate Republicans Chief of Staff Matt Schuler. The task force used its first meeting to approve the distribution of funding to each pair of caucuses to support their work because, as Speaker Batchelder commented, redistricting is not a bipartisan process.
The process for each redistricting effort is as follows:
General Assembly District Lines
Members of the State Apportionment Board include the Governor, Auditor of State, Secretary of State and a Republican chosen by the Speaker and the President of the Senate and a Democrat chosen by the minority leaders of the Legislature.
- Republicans control 4 out of 5 seats on the State Apportionment Board.
- The board must meet between August 1 and October 1, 2011, on a date designated by the Governor. During this time, in previous years, the board has set deadlines for the submission of potential district plans by the public.
- The redistricting plan must be published no later than October 5, 2011.
Lines must be finalized by December 7, 2011, the deadline to file candidacy paperwork for the 2012 primary election.
- This could change should Ohio's primary be moved from March 6, 2012, to May; the filing deadline, which falls 90 days before the primary, would then move to March.
- Ohio must consolidate from 18 to 16 Congressional districts based on the results of the 2010 Census.