Week in Review 1-6-2023

Posted by on January 10th, 2023 in News

AGRICULTURE

The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODAg) Wednesday launched the beginning farmer tax credit, a program created by passage of 134-HB95 (Lightbody-Manchester). ODAg said the tax credit is now available to farmers entering the profession and those who help beginning farmers. “Agriculture and food is Ohio’s number one industry,” said ODAg Interim Director Tracy Intihar. “The beginning farmer tax credit will help keep costs down for new producers and encourage others to help them.”

EDUCATION

Though the most sweeping K-12 proposal of the lame duck session failed in the final hours, lawmakers still made a substantial number of education policy changes before wrapping up the 134th General Assembly. Senate GOP-backed SB178 (Reineke), which would transfer most K-12 policymaking and implementation authority from the State Board of Education and superintendent to the governor’s cabinet, could not garner House approval in the late hours of the Wednesday-Thursday marathon sessions. With it fell an attempt to restrict participation of transgender student athletes via HB151 (Jones), which the Senate used as a vehicle to try to win passage of SB178. Teacher licensure bill HB554 (Lightbody-Bird) carried several new policies into law. Reps. Mary Lightbody (D-Westerville) and Adam Bird (R-New Richmond), respectively a former teacher and school superintendent, introduced the measure as a way to address educator shortages by making it easier for teachers with expired licenses to return to the classroom. But in the final week of legislative activity, the Senate Primary and Second Education Committee loaded it up with several amendments, including one that encompassed SB356 (Brenner), which expands the definition of children with a developmental delay, affecting special education funding levels for those students.

GENERAL ASSEMBLY/STATEHOUSE

For the second time in the last few years, Democrats used their sway to pick the Ohio House speaker after a divided House Republican Caucus split, elevating Rep. Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) to the speaker’s dais despite Republicans announcing Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Monclova) as the speaker-elect last year. Merrin had won a closed caucus vote over Stephens and Rep. Phil Plummer (R-Dayton) in November after Plummer encouraged his supporters to back Merrin. As the 135th General Assembly gaveled in, word had circulated through the Statehouse that Stephens and his supporters were lobbying Democrats to vote for him over Merrin. The last time a floor vote went differently than a caucus election was when former House Speaker Larry Householder enlisted the help of Democrats to defeat House Speaker Ryan Smith in 2019. Smith would later be replaced by Stephens after he resigned to take a job as president of the University of Rio Grande. Rep. Scott Oelslager (R-North Canton) was elected speaker pro tempore, though 14 Republicans voted against his election.

The Senate is launching two new standing committees but trying to keep membership consistent from the past two years on the remaining panels, Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) said. In a Monday media call and remarks after the Tuesday, Jan. 3 Senate session, Huffman shared committee structure plans and legislative priorities for the 135th General Assembly. Sen. Mark Romanchuk (R-Ontario), a longtime member and leader of the Joint Medicaid Oversight Committee, will chair the new Senate standing committee on Medicaid. In addition, Sen. Terry Johnson (R-McDermott) will chair a committee focused on community revitalization, a follow up to the Addiction and Community Revitalization Committee of the previous General Assembly, a select committee that traveled the state to gather input. Huffman said it will focus on various “relief” programs for addiction recovery, seniors, people with disabilities and other communities.

As for legislative priorities, Huffman expressed hopes for a “comprehensive and reform-minded budget” by the summer deadline. “I want to ferret out a lot of programs that maybe sometime in the past were a good idea but aren’t anymore. We want to prevent duplicative programs. So a lot of that isn’t terribly interesting,” he said. “A lot of ideas for priorities I don’t know about until senators come to me and say, here’s a bill I’m going to introduce,” Huffman said. As he vowed during the lame duck session, the plan to overhaul K-12 education governance will be back in the new General Assembly. Huffman had championed Sen. Bill Reineke’s (R-Tiffin) 134-SB178, which would have transferred most authority of the State Board of Education and state superintendent to a new Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, led by a cabinet director answering to the governor. It ultimately fell short at the last minute after being paired with restrictions on transgender student athletes in 134-HB151 (Jones). Asked about passage of more abortion restrictions in the wake of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court Dobbs ruling, Huffman said they are “logistically in the same place” as a few weeks ago, when he expressed a desire to “clarify” the existing fetal “heartbeat” law but did not ultimately bring forth a proposal.

HIGHER EDUCATION

The Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE) has awarded nearly $28 million through the Choose Ohio First (COF) program, designed to increase the state’s workforce in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The scholarships, which will be awarded over the next five years, will support an estimated 3,400 students pursuing STEM degrees and certificates. The funding marks the fourth round of grants for the COF program under the DeWine-Husted administration. It will create new scholarship opportunities at 45 colleges and universities across the state, including several schools that are new to the program.

PENSIONS

A special audit by the auditor of state’s office of the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) launched in response to allegations of mismanagement and secrecy found no evidence of illegality but includes several recommendations for how the pension fund could be more transparent and effective. The system should scrutinize its practice of bonus payments for investment staff and rely less on trade secrets exemptions that prevent some investment information from becoming public, for example. Auditor of State Keith Faber initiated the special audit in response to a 2021 report by Edward Siedle of Benchmark Financial Services, who was hired by the Ohio Retired Teachers Association to conduct an outside review of STRS amid retiree discontent over STRS management and the multi-year suspension of cost-of-living adjustments (COLA).

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