Summer Break at the Statehouse: A Review of the First Six Months
By Gary Daniels
The Ohio General Assembly has now passed the state budget, and the first quarter of the two-year legislative session is over. As always, the ACLU of Ohio has been very active at the Statehouse in what was a very busy first six months.
To no one’s surprise, finding new and inventive ways to limit the reproductive freedom of Ohio women and families has been near the top of legislators’ agendas. To date, House and Senate bills have been introduced to outlaw abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected (HB 69), when a fetus is diagnosed with Down Syndrome (HB 135), and at 20 weeks into a pregnancy (SB 127).
All share a common thread of trying to convince the Supreme Court of the United States to abandon its 40-plus-year standard regarding fetal viability and replace it with a radical new framework to outlaw as many abortions as possible. None of these bills have made their way through the entire legislative process—yet. But we’ll hear more about all of them in the fall when the legislature reconvenes.
Private Prisons, Anti-Discrimination, and Ward’s Bill of Rights
Once again, privatizing incarceration has also captured the attention of legislators. Ohio now wants to sell yet another prison to private, for-profit operators (HB 238). This time, it’s the North Central Correctional Institution in Marion. Although the prison already is privately operated, the state thinks it makes sense to sell it off. Of course, we know the last time this happened it was, and continues to be, disastrous on many levels. The House and Senate have passed HB 238, and we expect that Governor Kasich will sign it soon.
To no one’s surprise, finding new and inventive ways to limit reproductive rights of women has been near the top of legislators’ agendas.
The legislature also wants to let counties allow the takeover of their jails by corporations (HB 82). If lawmakers have their way, one wonders how many years it will be before all of Ohio’s prisons and jails are privately run.
Every session also seems to bring at least one bill to roll back Ohio’s anti-discrimination laws. This time around, we have two—one in the House (HB 149) and one in the Senate (SB 134)—to gut fair housing laws in our state and legally permit smaller landlords to deny housing to others based on such things as their race, religion, gender, and disability. The ACLU has been active in opposing these bills and we believe the outcry from people and organizations across the state has given legislators pause as they decide whether to move forward.
Clearly, Ohio’s guardianship laws are in need of significant improvement. Last session, legislation was introduced to create and use a “bill of rights” for wards, and it has been reintroduced this session (HB 50). This bill of rights does not create any new law, but does provide a useful written document briefly explaining current state and federal laws to protect wards. Unfortunately, as debate over HB 50 continues, this bill of rights continues to devolve from a truly helpful document to one hijacked by special interests.
Last session’s bill removed mention of certain privacy rights interpreted to mean the right to reproductive choice. With HB 50, any mention of a right to vote has been scrubbed. Sponsors then doubled down on anti-choice ideology by adding the words “excluding abortion services” to a section about appropriate services for wards. We testified against all these changes and also asked legislators to add language protecting the right to religious worship. However, proponents apparently have no interest in such a change. A document once meant to inform wards and guardians has now become a vehicle to mislead people on their fundamental reproductive, voting, and religious rights.
Online Voter Registration and Mass Incarceration
In a welcome change, the Ohio General Assembly is finally addressing the issue of online voter registration (SB 63). The Senate passed a bill allowing for it, and we will watch the House closely as this bill lands in their chamber. Online voter registration would greatly improve the accuracy and efficiency of Ohio’s election system, which is exactly why Secretary of State Jon Husted and a majority of county boards of elections have endorsed this practice. We look forward to this long-needed upgrade to Ohio’s elections, but would like to increase voter access in the legislation.
Of course, with 2016 right around the corner, we’re confident bad voting legislation is on the way. Stay tuned.
Last but not least, the legislature continues its love affair with cramming even more Ohioans in prisons and jails. Our prison system has been dangerously overcrowded for decades, but that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from introducing dozens of bills to lengthen criminal sentences, expand the scope of current laws, and create new laws. Many of these same legislators bemoan the size of our prison population, yet routinely fail to make the connection between this problem and the bills they actively support. You’ll be hearing much more from us about this problem in the fall.
Keep in mind this is not a full list of legislation with civil liberties implications or ACLU activities at the Statehouse. Undoubtedly, you’ll be hearing a lot more from us as we advocate for your rights during the one-and-a-half years left in this legislative session.