COLUMBUS - State lawmakers seemingly have frozen in the face of crises this year, canceling nearly half of their session days and sending the governor just nine bills in just over nine months, a government watchdog group said yesterday.
But legislative campaign fund-raising events have gone on, including many that were scheduled on the same canceled session days.
"If we're this frozen now, what exactly is going to happen in [election year] 2010?" asked Catherine Turcer, of Ohio Citizen Action. "When push comes to shove, it's all about 2010. They have their eye on 2010 and not on now."
From Jan. 1 through Oct. 10, 40 of 92 scheduled session days in the Ohio House and Senate were canceled. Meanwhile, just three of 243 scheduled fund-raisers for Ohio lawmakers were called off.
Almost on cue, the House yesterday announced the cancellation of its scheduled session day on Tuesday. A session day set for Wednesday is still on. The Senate canceled session on both days.
This year marked the first time in 14 years, and the first since term limits slashed the experience level of state lawmakers, that control of the Ohio General Assembly has been split.
Democrats regained control of the House in last November's election and now hold a tenuous 53-46 majority. While they've made little headway in the Senate, where Republicans outnumber them 21-12, Democrats do have Gov. Ted Strickland.
The first half of the year was dominated by Ohio's budget woes as a standoff over passage of a $55 billion, two-year spending plan carried three weeks past the end of the last fiscal year on June 30. Ms. Turcer noted that all but three of the bills that reached Mr. Strickland's desk were budget-related.
The exceptions were laws allowing 16-year-olds to donate blood with parental consent, revising coal mining laws, and dropping references to the term "mental retardation" in state laws.
"When they want to get busy, all you have to look at is Issue 2. Lickity split. Less than 10 days," Ms. Turcer said.
Lawmakers swiftly passed the agribusiness-backed Issue 2, a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 3 ballot, to create a board to write new standards for livestock animals. It's designed to head off an expected effort by a national animal rights organization to reform animal care standards.
The flow of bills getting to the governor's desk has slowed to a trickle, down from 23 during roughly the same period of the 2007-08 session and 38 for the first nine months of the 2005-06 session. Taxpayers, however, are paying about $55.4 million a year for the operations of the General Assembly.
"The report focuses a lot on the number of bills and sessions that occurred, but it doesn't take into consideration that, within [the budget], we dealt with a lot of issues related to the framework of state government," said Keary McCarthy, spokesman for House Speaker Armond Budish (D., Beachwood).
"There were a number of important provisions that not only helped strengthen our economy… but there was also a complete overhaul of Ohio's education system," he said.
"That's something the legislature has grappled with for the last decade but had never been able to move forward with."
Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) said his constituents have never asked him how many bills lawmakers have passed.
"They want to know what we're doing to help people get back to work, what are we doing to stimulate our economy," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that we're passing bills. We're working with the Department of Development. We're working with potential developers to bring jobs through the state."
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