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2017 In Review: What Ohio's Legislature Did This Year

Ohio Budget Director Tim Keen (from left), House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, Governor John Kasich and Senate President Larry Obhof discuss changes to the state budget.
Karen Kasler
Ohio Public Radio

At the beginning of 2017, as President Trump took office, Ohio lawmakers were focused on the new two-year state budget.

Gov. John Kasich wanted another personal income tax cut offset with tax increases. But as lawmakers looked over his budget, state revenues kept coming in well under estimates. That forced Republican state leaders to cut $800 million from the spending plan.

Kasich said in April that nothing was off limits when considering cuts.

“Everything has to be under the microscope,” Kasich said. “You can’t, you just can’t say willy-nilly you’re just going exempt all this. But we’ll be sensitive about areas we have to be sensitive about, but decisions have to be made.”

By the deadline at the end of June, lawmakers approved a $133 billion dollar budget that lowered taxes on farmers’ pay, lifted a freeze on tuition at state colleges and allowed video poker games at racinos – a move that’s expected to add $25 million dollars to state coffers during that period.

The budget also spent $123 billion in state and federal funds to fight the opioid crisis. What it didn’t contain was the 17 percent proposed income tax cuts, and tax hikes on oil and gas drillers, tobacco products, wine and beer.

Lawmakers like Republican Senate president Larry Obhof praised the budget for being fiscally responsible.

“This budget is not pain free,” Obhof said. “Many government agencies, including the Senate, will see substantial cuts.”

The budget lawmakers passed, however, did include cuts and restrictions to the Medicaid program. Kasich rejected those, as part of a record 47 budget vetoes, leading to a showdown between the Republican governor and the Republican-dominated legislature.

House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger indicated those vetoes were not going to be allowed to stand.

“There’s some issues members are extremely passionate about,” Rosenberger said.

Indeed, legislators in the House and Senate came back in late summer to override six of those vetoes, most dealing with Medicaid, but they didn’t override the biggest one that would have frozen Medicaid expansion enrollment. They could still override those vetoes any time before the end of 2018.

The budget took up much of the year, but it wasn’t the only legislation that made it through. Lawmakers also passed a $581 million workers' compensation budget that shortened times for processing disability cases but added health, wellness and safety education. That bill, though, didn’t contain the most controversial proposed change that would have blocked benefits for undocumented workers.

Ohioans got a break in August when they sent their kids back to school, after the legislature passed a sales tax holiday on clothing and selected school items. The last time the state allowed one was back in 2015, and Alex Burnka of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants says Ohioans saved $3.3 million back then.

The non-partisan Legislative Services Commission said the holiday would cost $14.7 million over this year’s weekend, but Burnka says he thinks there is something else to consider.

“You know they are getting that savings on the textbook but they are also buying some food, some groceries or other items that are not exempt,” Burnka said.

Ohio has a new law on the books that imposes longer prison sentences on attackers who intentionally disfigure their victims by using accelerants to set them on fire. The measure, known as “Judy’s Law,” was named after Columbus resident Judy Milanowski, who was seriously burned by her ex-boyfriend and suffered in a hospital for nearly two years.

Milanowski died just a day before lawmakers passed the bill she and her family supported. As he signed the bill into law, Kasich was surrounded by Milanowski’s family.

“Maybe there’s more we can do,” Kasich said. “Maybe there’s more we can do to think about how we can provide a safe haven, not just a safe haven but a wonderful haven and incubator to grow women into all they can be because without them, we are missing. We are not complete.”

October 7 will be the first official “Moses Fleetwood Walker Day,” to celebrate the Ohioan’s accomplishment of becoming the first African American player in major league baseball. Passage of that bill arrived just days before the Cleveland Indians lost a heartbreaker to the New York Yankees in the American League championship.

And just before leaving for holiday break, Kasich signed an additional 15 bills into law.

One big bill revises eligibility for annual cost of living adjustments for school employee retirees, changes tax reimbursements for schools and exempts glasses and contacts from sales tax beginning July 1, 2019. He also signed a bill granting the Casino Control Commission the authority to regulate fantasy online games and exempts them from gambling laws.

Kasich also signed bills allowing additional judges in specific areas, changing rules for insurance and home loans, and one that allows local fire districts and EMS to recoup revenue lost because of local economic development tax initiatives.

He also ended the year on another abortion ban, one that criminalizes performing an abortions after a diagnosis of Down syndrome. Ohio is the third state to enact such a ban, which would strip a doctor of their medical license if convicted but wouldn't penalize the women. A federal court recently struck down a similar law in Indiana, so the future of this law is yet to be seen.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.