Controversial higher ed bill gets close vote, but Republicans say it can pass the full Ohio House
It took less than three minutes for an Ohio House committee to come to order and pass the bill that goes after complaints conservatives have had about what they call “liberal bias” at public universities.
House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) has said Senate Bill 83 doesn’t have the votes to pass the full House, but members of his party on that committee seem to doubt that.
“The bill’s alive!” said Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Napoleon) as he left the House Higher Education Committee, which passed SB 83 in a quick vote with no testimony or comments from supporters or opponents. Merrin was one of eight Republicans who voted for the bill in committee.
Rep. Gayle Manning (R-North Ridgeville) had suggested she would be a "no" vote, but she told reporters that the removal of a ban on faculty strikes from the bill convinced her to switch to "yes". Reps. Gail Pavliga (R-Portage County) and Justin Pizzulli (R-Scioto County) voted against it along with the committee's five Democrats.
“This bill is just toxic. It's bad, it's anti-union, it's anti-education, public education," said Rep. Joe Miller (D-Lorain) after the vote. "And it attacks the the very institution that is formed in Ohio to provide Ohioans with the opportunity to better their lives, and that is by educating themselves for the next stage of life as an adult. This is a sad day."
While the ban on faculty strikes in earlier versions of SB 83 was dropped by sponsor Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), it still bans most mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] training at publicly-funded universities. It requires what’s called “intellectual diversity” on topics spelled out in the legislation: "climate policies; electoral politics; foreign policy; diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; immigration policy; marriage; or abortion." The bill also prohibits universities from taking public positions on controversial topics, though they can lobby lawmakers on issues. It cuts the terms of university trustees from nine years to six years. And it includes a ban on financial partnerships with China, but that doesn’t include tuition from Chinese students.
“I feel confident. We’ll see. You never know. It’s very fluid," said Rep. Tom Young (R-Washington Township), the committee chair. "We gotta work the bill. We gotta go out and see where we are. This was the first step that nobody said we were going to get done.”
Last week Stephens had told reporters that SB 83 "doesn’t have the votes" to pass the full House. Cirino said in response that he'll "play the long game and wait to do something later," and added: "if that has to happen, the bill is gonna look a lot different than it does right now. And most importantly, it will be absent the concessions that I have made.”
SB 83 is strongly opposed by faculty and most student groups, and the Ohio State University's board of trustees voted in May to formally oppose it. As has been the case for all hearings on SB 83, opponents turned out to make their case against it.
"This is a direct attack on labor. And the entire labor community feels that direct attack," said Melissa Cropper with the Ohio Federation of Teachers, part of the national union that represents some public and private university faculty. "And we all we all know that what happens to one group of people can expand to other groups as well. So this is just a first step to them trying to take away collective bargaining rights from workers."
"I think it's foolish for anybody to believe that Sen. Cirino and others who want this bill won't come back for the other stuff anyway," said Sara Kilpatrick, Ohio Conference Director of the American Association of University Professors. “Sen. Cirino had introduced and passed SB 135 during the last session, and it was a 'free speech' bill. And he’s come back yet again this session with another quote-unquote 'campus free speech' bill. They’re not going to stop.”
Several people had submitted testimony for this hearing, including representatives from the conservative Buckeye Institute, the American Historical Association and the Ohio Association of Community Colleges. All were listed as interested parties, and not proponents or opponents.
If it has the needed support, SB 83 could be on the House floor next week.