COLUMBUS - In a flurry of lame-duck activity, the Republican General Assembly yesterday forged ahead with election reform and military veteran cash bonuses despite implied and direct veto threats from Gov. Ted Strickland.
The Senate also unanimously sent the House a bill increasing penalties for crimes associated with human trafficking, the entrapment and coercion of victims into prostitution, and other crimes.
Mr. Strickland and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner had urged lawmakers not to tackle the complicated issue of election reform in the final days this session, but the House yesterday gave its stamp of approval to a bill to eliminate the so-called "Golden Week" in which voters were able to simultaneously register and vote this year.
The bill also would force the secretary of state to share with local boards of election all voter registration applications on which supplied information doesn't match that in the state's motor vehicle database.
"All we're doing is requiring the secretary of state to share the data," Rep. David Daniels (R., Greenfield) said. "It does not say what they can or cannot do with it."
The Senate is expected today to approve changes made by the House and send the bill on to Mr. Strickland. The governor has stopped just short of vowing to veto it.
Tomorrow is expected to be the final day of voting in Columbus as lawmakers prepare to wrap up the two-year legislative session. All bills not forwarded to the governor by that time will have to start the entire legislative process over again next year when Democrats will have assumed control of the House.
All House Democrats but two opposed the election reform bill. Rep. Dan Stewart (D., Columbus) urged his colleagues to slow down, pointing to a pair of summits that Ms. Brunner, a Democrat, has called to discuss more comprehensive election reform for next year.
"It's like dominoes," he said. "Everything you change changes something else."
The measure would eliminate the five-day period in which voters were able to register to vote and immediately cast absentee ballots. The window was created by separate laws that set the registration deadline at 30 days before an election while allowing voters to cast absentee ballots as early as 35 days before the election.
The bill would narrow the absentee voting window to 20 days before the election, thereby eliminating the five-day overlap.
The House, meanwhile, voted 53-41 for an unrelated bill authorizing the spending of $200 million from the state's budgetary reserves to pay for military bonuses for veterans of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the early 1990s Gulf War.
The Senate is expected to forward House Bill 649 to Mr. Strickland, knowing he plans to veto it.
Given the state's worsening economic situation, the governor would prefer to ask voters next year to approve a bond issue for that purpose rather than use up part of the state's valuable reserves.
The chamber rejected an amendment proposed by Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo) that would have substituted a ballot issue for spending part of the rainy-day fund. Borrowing was used to finance prior bonuses for veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) balked at the idea of essentially placing the bonuses on a state credit card.
"We have nearly $11 trillion in [federal] debt, and we're bailing out people that we haven't even come to the end of the list on at the federal level," he said. "The state is asking to borrow even more dollars from the federal government. We could potentially pass the next budget essentially on borrowed money."
In other action, the Senate added an amendment to an unrelated bill to crack down on the practice of human trafficking. Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) had been pursuing such legislation for several years after Toledo became a focal point of human trafficking investigations.
"Ohio will join 39 other states in combating human trafficking," she said. "It's morally imperative that we target those responsible for ruining lives."
The bill, which returns to the House for approval of the Senate amendments, would increase the severity of the crime of establishing a pattern of corrupt activity for the purpose of human trafficking from a second-degree felony to a first-degree felony.
It also would mandate prison time for other crimes associated with human trafficking, such as kidnapping, compelling prostitution, and promoting prostitution. A first-degree felony would carry mandatory prison time of five to 10 years.
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