Home Law Introduced, Debated, and Ignored: What the Ohio Legislature is focusing on and why it matters

Introduced, Debated, and Ignored: What the Ohio Legislature is focusing on and why it matters

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Ohio Statehouse. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Every day in the Ohio legislature, state representatives introduce new proposals, ideas and solutions. Out of the hundreds of introduced proposals, only a fraction of them will ever become law. But even legislation that does not become law serves a vital role in state government and provides insight into exactly what representatives find important — and what they are leaving by the wayside. 

Bills and resolutions are the primary forms of legislation introduced in the Ohio Legislature. Resolutions can stand on their own or become joint or concurrent resolutions, which are resolutions adopted by both the Ohio Senate and Ohio House of Representatives, the two state legislative houses. While they have different names and slight technical differences, these are all essentially the same in their role as legislative proposals, and they all go through the same process. 

According to Sarah Poggione, associate professor of political science at Ohio University, bills in Ohio are introduced by any sitting member in either legislative house. Primary sponsors of the bill typically have the most control over the contents of the bill, although they may receive help with drafting legislation or including certain technical language. Some legislators may even use model legislation that might be supplied by an interest group or by a lobbyist. 

Most legislators have only a handful of sponsorships, but a few have been able to make an impact with a large portion of primary sponsorships. In the House, Brett Hillyer, R-Uhrichville, Speaker of the House Larry Householder, R-Glenford, Don Manning, R-New Middletown, and Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, are some of the representatives with the most primary sponsorships.

Hillyer has 45 sponsorships spread across house bills and resolutions, while Antani and Manning both have 24. Householder currently has the most primary sponsorships in the House, but all 46 of his primary sponsorships are resolutions, with no House bills sporting his primary sponsorship.

In the Senate, primary sponsorships are more prevalent amongst all the members. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard, Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, Larry Obhof, R-Medina, and Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, are some of the senators with the most sponsorships, and each of them sport more sponsorships than the biggest sponsors in the House: Kunze has 80 sponsorships, Obhof as 59, Gavarone has 46, and Dolan has 44.  

Primary sponsors of a bill or resolution are the people responsible for doing behind the scenes work to get their legislation more attention, in hopes of getting it passed. This often involves bringing the text to members of their own party, the opposition party, or the opposite chamber to gain support and opinions. This is where Poggione believes the true weight of representation kicks in.

“If you really want to see a change in legislation, you’re the one behind the scenes trying to redraft the bill that will make it more palatable to whoever it needs to be,” Poggione said. “It’s a really hard process to make new policy, to make new law, so someone needs to be behind the scenes negotiating all of that process. That’s real labor and activity, and I think that’s real representation as well.”

Primary sponsors usually seek out co-sponsors as well. Multiple co-sponsors backing a bill or resolution is a sign that the legislation should receive greater attention within the legislature. It is also beneficial for sponsors to gather co-sponsors from both parties, as bipartisan bills can also appear more appealing to lawmakers.

Co-sponsorships are additionally one way that a legislator can put their name out. This can be seen in the House, in which Craig Riedel, R-Defiance, Kent Smith, D-Euclid, and Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, are the legislators with the most legislation sponsored and co-sponsored combined, but only have a handful of primary sponsorships each. Riedel has sponsored and co-sponsored a total of 189 pieces of legislation combined, while Smith’s name appears on 156 and O’Brien has 154.

In the Senate,  Stephanie Kunze was still the biggest legislator — with her co-sponsorships, 170 pieces of legislation have her name in total. Senators Tina Maharath, D-Columbus, and Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, gained a bit more notoriety with their co-sponsorships. In total, Sen. Maharath sponsored and co-sponsored 154 pieces, and Sen. Antonio put her name on 151

Sponsorship can also take on a new importance to constituents when a legislator is also a descriptive representative – that is, speaking for a certain population by gender, race, or other characteristics. Descriptive representatives can bring many issues that were previously ignored in government to the forefront of debate, not only for voters in their districts but all over the state. 

For example, Sen. Maharath is the first Asian-American woman elected to the Ohio Senate, and in the 133rd assembly she was the primary sponsor for a senate bill concerning the affairs of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Ohio. 

The biggest topics in the 133rd assembly (and the smallest)

All legislation, regardless of how many times a representative sponsors it, ultimately functions to show what a representative believes their constituents are most concerned about. Likewise, if a topic does not appear regularly in the legislature, it is not seen as a major focus for the representatives or their constituents. 

Out of all the legislation introduced in the 133rd General Assembly, the House and Senate spent the most time introducing State and Local Government legislation. Legislators introduced 146 pieces of legislation under this category. State and local government accounts for many types of law at the state and local level and can also intersect with other categories of legislation. Other notable categories for the 133rd General assembly were Crimes, Corrections, and Law Enforcement, Health and Human Services, and Transportation.

Special Designations also appeared quite a few times. Some of these designations were used to name bridges and highways, others were used to assign new state symbols, such as making the monarch butterfly the official state butterfly or marking the sugar cookie as the official state cookie.

By contrast, issues like immigration, gambling, liquor control and retirement each had less than 10 pieces of legislation introduced this session, a large difference between other focuses in the houses. There might be less sponsorship over these issues because of an overall lack of interest, or, as Poggione points out, legislators might find certain types of legislation divisive in their district.

Roadblocks to passage

Sponsoring legislation frequently — particularly legislation around the same issues — not only marks that a legislator is responsive to their constituents’ needs, but also can mark them as an expert amongst their colleagues in a particular area. 

Most of all, sponsorship remains a way that legislators can make their constituents’ voices heard in a system that may limit their ability to do so. 

Poggione points out many factors that make lawmakers’ jobs harder. For example, factors, like being in the minority party or participating in a divided state legislature, can prevent a lawmaker’s sponsored legislation from getting passed. Even getting a bill or resolution placed in committee can be challenging.  

Additionally, Poggione states that in the Ohio House, the Rules and Reference Committee is responsible for referring bills to committees. This committee is chaired by the Speaker of the House and often has more majority than minority party members, which may serve as a challenge for minority party lawmakers trying to get their sponsorships into committee. 

Sometimes, large support or external events or pressure can help push a piece of legislation forward or at least help it gain more attention – Poggione points to shootings in the US often leading to increased interest in gun reform legislation. but in reality, most legislation ultimately ends up dying in committee. But sponsorship remains as a way to put an issue in the spotlight.

“You could argue that it’s really hard for constituents to hold legislators accountable for what passes or doesn’t pass, because it’s sometimes a little beyond their control,” Poggione said. “(It’s) not exactly a legislator’s fault if it passes or not, that’s dependent on half of that chamber supporting it, as well as half of the next chamber, and the governor not actively vetoing it. So, one of the things legislators can do is claim credit for legislation they sponsored or introduced, even if it doesn’t pass.”

While concrete solutions can take many years and sessions to become law, if they get passed at all, legislation can put an issue at the forefront of people’s minds and start discussions that otherwise would not be heard.

“If your bill actually gets to a committee and gets debated in committee,” Poggione said, “now there’s at least legislative attention to the problem. You’ve changed the agenda. Maybe you didn’t solve it as a policy problem yet. Maybe you didn’t even get a partial fix. But you’ve got people thinking about the problem.”

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