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Winter 2021 Voter Newsletter Advocacy Update
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A Review of the First Half of the 134th General Assembly

by Nazek Hapasha

The first year of the 134th General Assembly has come to a close. Here is the status of some bills that LWV Ohio has been following and/or working on, by category, since our last  newsletter.

Elections & Democracy

Two elections bills have been introduced in the House to significantly change voting registration and election administration processes and systems - HB 294 and HB 387. Democrats have dubbed HB 294 an attack on democracy, and many progressive organizations have followed suit, but the League maintains a neutral stance on the bill. The League has called for the removal of provisions in HB 294 that restrict the use of ballot drop boxes and shorten the time to return a mail-in ballot. Nonetheless, we believe that HB 294 is an imperfect solution to a major policy problem in Ohio that has already actively disenfranchised countless voters - the supplemental process, otherwise known as the voter purge. Automated Voter Registration, a major aspect of HB 294, would make great strides in eliminating wrongful voter purges in Ohio, thus increasing voter registration rates and voter turnout rates, especially among historically disenfranchised groups and young voters. Other positive provisions include:

LWVO is firmly opposed to HB 387, which would set back Ohio's early voting system decades by completely eliminating ballot drop boxes; shortening the early voting period to just six days; requiring a valid excuse to cast an absentee ballot; and banning the mailing of absentee ballot applications to all Ohio voters. It was referred to the House Government Oversight Committee after being introduced in August but has yet to have any hearings.  

There has been no movement on a number of bills that LWVO supports including SB 14, to modernize and improve security of voter registration systems; HB 55, which would allow virtual committee meetings; HB 56 to require face coverings in the Ohio Statehouse; and HB 310 to establish a means of hearing virtual testimony.

Criminal Justice

Regarding what has became known as the anti-protest bills in the Legislature, HB 109 (would increase penalties for assault, vandalism, and riot offenses) reported out of committee last month; and SB 16 (would create new offenses, and increase penalties for existing offenses, regarding conduct directed at an actual or perceived emergency service responder, public servant, or family member) had its first hearing in the House Criminal Justice Committee. There has been no change in status to HB 22 and SB 41, which would expand the offense of obstructing justice, and SB 41, which would increase penalties for vandalism, inciting to violence, aggravated riot, and riot. The League of Women Voters believes in the individual liberties guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and that they cannot be weakened or abridged during times of national tension.

The League submitted testimony in support of abolishing the death penalty in the first quarter of this General Assembly. Since then SB103 has been at a standstill in committee but HB183 had several committee meetings through the fall.  

Representatives Boggs and Carfagna reintroduced the Reagan Tokes Act, which has now had its second hearing. The bipartisan would create a re-entry program for offenders and set standards for parole officer caseloads so that they aren’t overwhelmed. The current “Reagan Tokes Law” enacted in 2019, deals only with changing sentencing guidelines for certain violent offenders.    

The League offered testimony in support of SB 183, which would create a pathway to expungement for individuals who were forced to commit crimes while they were being trafficked. A substitute bill has since been introduced which adds an additional layer of scrutiny for expungement for higher level felonies. Senator Fedor, one of the sponsors of the bipartisan bill, says it incorporates many of the suggestions raised in committee and represents a compromise between different parties. Companion legislation has been introduced in the House  (HB 319) but there have bee no committee hearings.

Education

House Bills 322 and 327, which have collectively been dubbed as the Honesty in Education bills, have both had hearings during the last quarter of this GA; HB 322 has been amended while a substitute bill was accepted for HB 327. Changes in SUB HB 327 include a clarification of certain terms and a new process for K-12 districts to recover funds that were withdrawn for violations. Changes for higher education in SUB HB 327 include the removal of restrictions around the teaching, instruction, and training of “divisive concepts” for higher education; the addition of a prohibition against requiring a “divisive concept” course as part of a major or program; and the addition of an appeals process for students who felt they were subjected to indoctrination.

Senate Bill 181, which would remove barriers from religious expression in interscholastic athletics and extracurricular activities, was reported out of the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee.

Energy & Environment

Republicans have introduced some pro-environment bills in the last quarter like HB 450, which would allow for the development of community solar projects, and SB 89, which would extend the renewable portfolio standard and increase solar energy benchmarks, thereby offering a fix to some of the setbacks imposed by HB 6 during the previous GA.

Gun Safety

In June the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a law which states that school personnel cannot carry a gun on school property without the required training and/or experience. That decision practically voided HB 99, a widely unpopular bill that would allow authorization of certain school personnel to carry a weapon without completing the required firearms training - until it was amended to overrule the Supreme Court decision. HB 99 passed the House in November and is awaiting committee hearings in the Senate.

 HB 227, which would allow Ohioans to carry a concealed gun/weapon without a license, passed the House in November. Additionally, a companion bill - SB 215 - was introduced and had two hearings during the last quarter.  

Ohio legislators continue to find new ways to make it easier to own a gun in Ohio and have now introduced a bill that would exempt from sales and use taxes the sale of certain firearms and ammunition (HB 471/SB 265). Meanwhile common sense measures like an extreme risk protection order have not been afforded even one committee hearing.