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Ohio lawmakers return for special session Tuesday; why it's happening and what to expect

Daniel Konik
/
Statehouse News Bureau

A special session of the Ohio legislature begins today, called by Gov. Mike DeWine to change an election law deadline so President Biden can be on the fall ballot and to ban foreign contributions to ballot issue campaigns. But there's still a chance nothing will happen.

Since 1935, state lawmakers have been called into special sessions by governors 27 times, the most recent in 2004. And seven times, no law was passed out of those sessions. But DeWine said he wants his fellow Republicans who have the supermajority to move on the foreign money ban and the fix to ensure Biden is on the ballot this November.

“I’ve been patient. My patience has run out. And I think the patience of the people of the state of Ohio, their patience should have run out by now as well," DeWine said in a press conference calling for the special session Thursday.

A Senate session is set for Tuesday afternoon, with a House session on Thursday. It is unclear what bill will be taken up, and whether it will have to be introduced with a new bill number.

Special session has been months in the making

The session comes as House Republicans are still bitterly split over the vote for speaker last year, and as Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) is set to challenge Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) as House speaker next year.

The Biden ballot saga began in April, as Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose notified Ohio Democrats that their national convention set for Aug. 19-22 was after the Ohio ballot deadline of Aug. 7, which is 90 days before the election.

LaRose said the convention needed to be moved or lawmakers needed to change the deadline by May 9. Legislators moved the deadline before the 2012 and 2020 elections, when both major parties' conventions were before Ohio's presidential certification deadline.

For weeks, Republican and Democratic leaders continued to maintain that Biden would be on the ballot, even as no legislation emerged to make that happen. On May 8, a fix to the deadline was added by Republican Senators to House Bill 114, a bipartisan bill to allow candidates to pay child care with campaign funds. A provision banning foreign contributions in ballot issue campaigns was also added.

Senate Democrats unanimously opposed the changes, saying that language would make it harder to pass ballot issues, and that Republicans added it to thwart likely ballot issues this fall to change the redistricting process and raise the minimum wage.

Republicans have zeroed in on contributions from a Swiss billionaire to the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which was among the progressive dark money groups that worked on passing Ohio's abortion access amendment last fall, while conservative dark money groups donated to defeat Issue 1. Voters approved it 57%-43%.

Last week, the Ohio Senate voted on a foreign contributions ban added to House Bill 305, which was a bipartisan proposal to modernize electronic filings at county courts. Republican Senators also added a provision to make it easier for the state to appeal when local judges block new state laws during litigation over their constitutionality.

Last week the Ohio Supreme Court ruled against a request by Republican Attorney General Dave Yost to allow a ban on gender-affirming treatment for minors and trans athletes in girls sports to take effect while the law is still in court.

But four justices suggested they were concerned about a local judge's ability to block a law statewide. Ohio's Republican-backed six-week abortion ban was put on hold by a Hamilton County judge in September, with a decision expected at any time.

The House hasn’t voted on the Biden ballot fix or the foreign money ban. Last week Stephens raised concerns about everything that the Senate added to HB 305 and instead suggested passing House Bill 609, which he said is a "very simple" ban on foreign contributions.

He also said there was no will among Republican lawmakers to pass a Biden ballot fix in "a hyper political environment at this time of year," and said he felt the issue could be fixed without the assistance of state lawmakers.

Huffman said something similar when the Senate passed HB 114 on May 8. He said the bill had to include more than just a fix to put Biden on the ballot "because Republicans in both the House and the Senate aren't going to vote for a stand-alone Biden bill. There's not enough support for it."

Ohio is the only state without a Biden ballot fix

Ohio is the only state with a ballot deadline before the convention for which there is no fix already in the works. Two other states with similar ballot deadline conflicts are well into the process of resolving them. Lawmakers in deeply red Alabama unanimously passed a legislative fix earlier this month. Washington is seeking a provisional certification, which LaRose said isn’t allowed under Ohio law.

After there was no resolution on the Biden ballot issue last week, House Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) said she expected an intra-party fix or a federal lawsuit, and added she was always skeptical of a legislative solution.

"We've seen the dysfunction here in this place, and I think we've seen that folks have not been able to put aside partisanship and hyper partisanship and infighting," Russo said last week.

But DeWine said, "we should not be looking to the courts to solve our problems in the state of Ohio."

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at kkasler@statehousenews.org.