Least Legislation in Decades Marks 128th Assembly

Ohio’s politically divided 2009-10 legislature met less often and passed fewer bills

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 26, 2010  02:59 AM




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he 128th General Assembly set a modern record for inactivity.

The first politically divided legislature in 14 years held fewer sessions and passed fewer bills over the past two years than those that preceded it – much fewer.

Lawmakers will argue that such statistics are not necessarily true gauges of workload or success. There were some legislative accomplishments, but the numbers are so much lower than in past sessions that they are hard to ignore. Consider:

• During the previous 20 years, including times when government was politically divided, an average of 247 bills became law in each two-year legislative session. This session: 58.

• Since 1997, the House and Senate each met about 83 times in every session. This session, the Senate met 58 times and the House 52 – barely once every two weeks.

• The Republican Senate passed 98 bills this session, just 35 percent of its normal output during the previous 20 years. The Democratic House moved 137 bills, about 44 percent of its usual workload.

Ruling parties in both chambers did break fundraising records, however.

“I’ve been here 10 years, and I’ve never seen a less productive two-year session,” said Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati. He showed his frustration by ticking off a number of bipartisan bills that died in one chamber or the other.

“I’m asked by the state and local bar associations to teach continuing-education seminars on recent legislative activities. It’s a damn short seminar this year.”

During the past two years, it was not uncommon to hear complaints that Republican leaders were refusing to engage in major policy discussions, or that Democratic leaders didn’t understand how to negotiate.

This was hardly Ohio’s first politically divided legislature. But it was the first since eight-year term limits started in 2000. In conversations with lawmakers and lobbyists about why things were so dysfunctional, a common theme emerged: inexperience.

When Democrats took control of the House for the first time in 14 years, new Speaker Armond Budish of Beachwood and his No. 2, Rep. Matthew Szollosi of Oregon, had a combined four years of legislative experience. Their caucus was full of members who had never served in the majority, which showed at times when committees did not run at all smoothly.

Senate Republicans were a distinctly more-seasoned bunch than their House counterparts, but they were inexperienced in another key way: Practically none of them knew anything but one-party legislative control. They had no experience dealing with legislative Democrats on equal footing.

So, as one veteran lawmaker put it, green House leaders “didn’t know what they were doing” and focused too much on the elections, and Senate Republicans acted too much like a minority party, more interested in blocking Gov. Ted Strickland and legislative Democrats than stepping up to lead.

The result was gridlock.

“I don’t know if someone made the determination at some point that gridlock was to their advantage come election time,” said Rep. Dan Dodd, D-Hebron, who served two terms. “It was a little bizarre. It seemed like nothing was easy at any point.”

The House and Senate never developed a good working relationship, starting at the top with Budish and Senate President Bill M. Harris, R-Ashland. The two are genuinely polite, kind men, and they often spoke well of each other on a personal level.

But some say their professional relationship suffered early when Harris slipped on ice in late January 2009 and badly broke his leg, putting him out of action for two months during a critical time when the leaders would normally work to build mutual comfort and trust.

When Harris returned, the legislature was in the midst of a highly contentious debate about the two-year budget. The budget fight pushed past the deadline into July. A funding shortage forced a second nasty budget fight in December.

The two chambers fought about having to make a series of unpopular decisions. They fought about who would get credit for certain legislation. Good will never developed.

There are good people in both parties, Szollosi said, but term limits make it tough to get to know one another.

“Without any real foundation of relationships, there is very little trust, and it’s reflected in the rather poor relationship you saw between the Senate and House this term,” he said.

And then there was the election.

“There was a lot (at) stake in 2010, and neither chamber wanted to give an inch on policy issues that could be used against people for political purposes,” Szollosi said. “It was unfortunate.”

House Democrats were trying to hold a slim majority. Republicans were gunning for the House and all statewide offices.

“I think politics superseded policy,” said Rep. Marian Harris, D-Columbus, a freshman who was frustrated by her only term in the House. “The problem for us was the Senate.”

Sen. Kevin J. Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls, said: “Our leadership tells us in the caucus that communication from the House Democrats has been hard to get.”

But as they talked, both Rep. Harris and Coughlin also cited faults on their own side.

“In retrospect, I wish we had more sessions and passed more bills,” Rep. Harris said. “It may have put more pressure on the Senate to deal with some of those issues.”

Coughlin added: “I would have preferred to be more proactive in defining a clear Senate/Republican agenda. I think you do have to put out a program. We did not. We were reactionary.”