January 23, 2012
JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS — Elements of Gov. John Kasich’s ambitious policy agenda have whisked so quickly through the Ohio Legislature this month that fellow Republicans, Democrats and sidelined witnesses alike grumbled at the pace.
It wasn’t just about inconvenience. Many expressed concern that the sheer volume and speed of the legislation made it difficult to be fully vetted by lawmakers and reviewed by the public.
On the last night of floor sessions last week, Republican House Speaker William Batchelder said his chamber pulled a 565-page education overhaul bill from its calendar at the 11th hour because some in his caucus were “distressed” about having had so little time to review it.
Democratic state Sen. Mike Skindell expressed a similar sentiment a week earlier during Senate debate over a 2,712-page bill that contained the core — but far from all — of Kasich’s off-cycle budget package.
“I thought when I served in the House for eight years that the Senate was the deliberative body,” Skindell, of Lakewood, said during a floor speech. “And sometimes, as fast as things are moving around here, I’m deeply concerned for the citizens of Ohio that we are not deliberating upon these various issues.”
The anti-drilling coalition Frackfree Mahoning Valley was one of hundreds of interest groups on dozens of bills that tried to keep up.
The group had discovered an issue of concern in wide-ranging energy legislation and called for legislative delay on it Wednesday, before a committee vote went forward. The bill, 220 pages long, then cleared the Senate floor later that same day. A House committee passed it within a week and representatives sent it off to the governor the next day.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols acknowledged the governor dumped an inordinate amount of new policy on lawmakers at the Statehouse, where fellow Republicans control both the Senate and House — and in a year when they have to get elected and the governor doesn’t.
“They put in some very, very hard work, and unanticipated work, and we are grateful,” Nichols said.
Kasich is a governor who doesn’t let grass grow under his feet, and Nichols said that’s not a bad thing.
“Why would you ever put off doing the right thing?” Nichols said. “It’s the right policy: Get it in now.”
Senate Finance Chairman Chris Widener, a Springfield Republican, was among those who wished some of the bills could have slowed down.
Widener was among Republicans in both chambers who ultimately pulled the education overhaul, the Cleveland Schools plan and bank tax reform off the fast track, among others.
“I know there have been several issues where I wish I’d had more time,” Widener said. “I know there were several issues we were able to find and have been able to correct, and I know that’s part of the legislative process. When you work on the issues, definitely the product’s better — and that’s what we should all be concerned about.”
Widener balked at the suggestion that debating a bill makes government cumbersome compared to the speed of business.
“It’s just a process that takes a little bit of time. I’m sure it takes a little bit of time in the corporate world and the private sector as well, we just don’t hear about it as much,” he said. “Those things obviously don’t get covered in the media.”
Kasich’s agenda is only one reason Ohio legislators move with particular haste at this time, a year and a half into their two-year session. Another is term limits.
Senate President Tom Niehaus, who must retire due to term limits at year’s end, was instrumental in pushing a package of pension reform bills onto the busy legislative calendar this month. The New Richmond Republican said he wanted to see policy changes that will help Ohio workers and retirees become law before he leaves office.
Niehaus said he shares the governor’s sense of urgency about the condition of the state.
“When you look around the state, while there’s been some improvement, there are still far too many people unemployed or underemployed,” he said. “And so we are trying to do everything we can to make sure there are opportunities for people to work.”