Included in the new laws sent to Governor Mike DeWine bills would do the following:
- Spend $6 billion in mostly unused federal stimulus money
- Impose a strict photo-ID requirement for all in-person voters as part of a larger elections bill
- Block cities from restricting flavored-tobacco sales
- Bar police from banning guns or gun sales during a riot or other emergency
- Require schools to provide children with age-appropriate sexual-abuse prevention education
- Increase penalties for distracted driving as part of a broader criminal-justice reform bill
- Toughen the state’s verification process for its unemployment system after it was marred by widespread fraud during the coronavirus pandemic
- Provide $30 million to upgrade Progressive Field, where the Cleveland Guardians play
But one of the most notable aspects about the lame-duck session, which culminated in a marathon overnight session that ended around 6 a.m., is what didn’t pass: three of the most controversial measures that earlier on had seemed teed up for approval.
A proposal to raise the voter-approval threshold for state constitutional amendments to 60% – a change that would have profound implications for an expected future statewide ballot measure from abortion-rights advocates, among other developing proposals – fizzled, despite a last-minute push from its Republican sponsor explicitly tying the measure to the abortion issue.
The measure, or a version of it, still could be revived in January. That keeps the possibility open that Ohio could hold a statewide vote in May that will function as a warm-up round in a larger fight over abortion rights. But it continues to face stiff opposition from groups that hold some sway with Republicans, including police and firefighters unions, anti-vaccine mandate activists who are preparing a “right to refuse” ballot issue, and the American Policy Roundtable, a conservative advocacy group.
Also flaming out was a proposal to gut the state Board of Education, transferring many of its responsibilities, including those overseeing educational standards and curriculum development, to the governor’s office. The idea is a longstanding one in Columbus, dating back to former Gov. George Voinovich’s administration. But it saw renewed urgency from Republicans after Democratic-backed candidates won a majority of the board’s elected seats in the November election.
After the school board overhaul bill stalled in the face of opposition from homeschool advocates and other social conservatives who distrusted empowering the governor’s office on educational issues, Republicans tried greasing it with a tried and true legislative maneuver: adding a 2,100-page amendment that mashed up a few social conservative wish-list items in an attempt to win over the holdout Republican lawmakers.
But despite adding language to the bill that would have prohibited discrimination against K-12 students who do not get the COVID-19 vaccine and barred transgender athletes from playing in girls’ and women sports, it failed to pass. And this year’s Board of Education overhaul bill became the latest version of the proposal to fail.
The final, and perhaps most notable topic that didn’t come up during the lame duck session is abortion.
At a minimum, lawmakers had discussed clarifying the state’s “Heartbeat” six-week abortion ban, which is on hold while a state court challenge plays out, after a highly publicized case from June involving a 10-year-old rape victim in Columbus highlighted ambiguities in the law’s exceptions. Beyond that, twenty-one Republican state lawmakers pledged in October to ban abortion completely, and socially conservative groups lobbied for the legislature to act during lame duck.
But nothing came. Senate President Matt Huffman, a powerful Lima Republican, said throughout the session there wasn’t time to craft something. Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, emphasized that lawmakers should pass something that would be able to withstand a possible repeal campaign.
All of these issues can and may very well come up in the new legislative session, which begins in January under the auspices of a new House speaker: state Rep. Derek Merrin, a conservative Northwest Ohio Republican.
But they failed in the hothouse of the lame-duck session, when lawmakers often ram through some of their most controversial bills, which also means they could simply fade into the latest completed chapter of state legislative history.