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Published: 3/6/2007

A civics lesson

THE dispute in Columbus over how a bill becomes law - or doesn't - is not one you can solve from a civics textbook. Nor is it the usual partisan food fight.

Republicans who control the General Assembly are locked in a battle with Gov. Ted Strickland and his fellow Democrat, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, in what might be viewed by outsiders as a comedy of errors if it weren't so serious.

The brouhaha stems from the legislature's lame-duck session in late December and the haste with which a number of highly controversial bills were rammed through at the last minute by majority Republicans.

Just before he left the Statehouse at the end of his term in early January, then-Gov. Bob Taft filed one of those bills with the Secretary of State's office. Mr. Taft intended that the Republican-backed measure, which limited product liability lawsuits against manufacturers of lead paint, would become law without his signature.

But the new governor, Mr. Strickland, retrieved the bill and vetoed it, causing GOP leaders to cry foul. "Once the governor chooses to take his action and the Secretary of State certifies it, it is now not something you can send back," House Speaker Jon Husted declared at the time. "That document can't be altered."

Two weeks later, however, the Republicans took the opposite tack on a different bill and now they're arguing that a bill can be retrieved and changes made.

Mr. Taft, it turns out, signed the wrong version of a bill that was supposed to - but for some reason did not - include an amendment to limit campaign contributions by labor unions, another GOP priority.

Calling the lapse "a clerical error," the House clerk retrieved some of the pages in that bill from Ms. Brunner's office and substituted the "corrected" version.

"Gotcha!" chortled the Democrats. If the Republicans are right about the lead paint bill, they can't be right about the campaign-finance measure. Besides, the Dems assert, if Mr. Taft signed a bill that wasn't identical to the one passed by the legislature, it can't become law in any case.

Not surprisingly, the dispute is headed for court. Republicans previously asked the Ohio Supreme Court - a blatantly political body dominated 7-zip by the GOP - to overturn the veto. Democrats, in turn, are expected to challenge alteration of the campaign-finance bill.

While Republicans claim that correcting inadvertent errors is different from trying to sabotage legislative intent, the court has an obligation to settle some serious issues, and do so fairly.

These include under what circumstances can incompetence be excused as "clerical error," and, if the governor and lawmakers aren't required to follow procedure to the letter, what's to prevent them from using the "harmless mistake" excuse to slip something not passed by the legislature into law?

Ohioans will be watching intently for the court's answer in this heavy-duty civics lesson.



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