Addressing the legislature, justices on the Supreme Court, ranking state officials, and the state at large, DeWine avoided heated political issues and focused on expanding access to mental health care, funding state parks and Appalachian counties, strengthening distracted driving laws, and adding new criminal penalties to convicted criminals found in possession of a weapon.
The lighter fare of the speech (the House Speaker later described it as “uplifting”) stands in contrast to an acrimonious political moment.
He addressed a Republican legislature that last year overrode his veto and stripped the governor’s office of key powers to respond to pandemics; seated in the crowd were Ohio Supreme Court justices, some of whom have recently overturned four legislative and congressional redistricting proposals as partisan gerrymanders that DeWine supported; last week, DeWine signed controversial legislation removing training and permitting requirements to carry a concealed weapon. The speech comes after a pandemic that — besides killing nearly 38,000 Ohioans and hospitalizing 114,000 — nixed the past two annual State of the State addresses.
Wednesday’s speech, however, painted a rosier picture of state affairs. His plugs ranged from Intel, which is investing billions in the state to build two massive factories building semi-conductor chips, to the Cincinnati Bengals making it to (though losing) the Super Bowl.
“The state of our amazing state is strong. Ohio is strong,” he said. “What unites us is much stronger than what divides us.”
DeWine spent much of the speech focused on mental health initiatives. While he didn’t offer specifics or cost estimates, he made a case for expanding access to mental health care services for underserved communities, increasing research in the field, building “community capacity” to respond to the growing need, and stepping away from criminalizing mental illness.
Some 12,000 crashes, 300 injuries, and 43 deaths stemmed from distracted driving last year, DeWine said. At that, he called on lawmakers to pass pending legislation that would prohibit a person from “using, holding or physically supporting with any part of the person’s body” a cell phone. The bill would also make this a primary offense, meaning officers can use it to initiate a traffic stop.
“Please pass this bill,” he said.
He also pitched two ideas that have been nonstarters in the Statehouse over the past few years: one bill stiffening criminal penalties on felons from possessing a firearm; and another increasing training for police and creating an independent investigation mechanism after uses of force while on duty.
What DeWine didn't say
DeWine’s critics — notably Democrats and environmentalists — went after him for what he left out more than what he said.
Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund President Trish Demeter noted DeWine’s comments about a “good regulatory environment” in Ohio don’t hold true for renewable energy generators, or businesses looking to run on sustainable power.
She criticized his failure to address a massive energy corruption scandal in Ohio, and for signing a bill last year that could choke off wind and solar development in the state.
“Gov. DeWine has failed to challenge the powerful electric utility and coal lobby or temper extreme anti-clean energy legislators,” she said. “His actions have cost Ohioans good-paying union jobs in the growing clean energy sector and have made us more dependent on fossil fuels at a time of rising energy costs.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairwoman Liz Walters noted wholesale omission from the speech of the ongoing redistricting kerfuffle, which could result in a delayed primary or an expensive, two-part primary election.
“The election chaos we’re seeing in Ohio falls squarely at the feet of Mike DeWine and Republicans on the redistricting commission who failed time and again to pass fair maps,” she said. “Ohioans are sick and tired of words; it’s time for action. Today, Ohio Democrats are once again calling on DeWine and his fellow Republicans to do their jobs and pass fair maps.”
In a press conference after the speech, legislative leaders offered muted receptiveness to some of the governor’s ideas.
House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, said he didn’t know the status of a police reform bill (similar to what the governor called for) in the House but said DeWine’s comments will likely prompt lawmakers to take a fresh look at it.
Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, floated the concept of pairing the governor’s gun proposal with several criminal justice reforms under consideration in the chamber. He said he believes in people’s ability to redeem themselves after criminal convictions, but that must be weighed against a public safety risk of allowing ex-felons to bear arms.
On distracted driving, Cupp said the House is getting closer to gathering enough support to pass the proposal. Huffman offered a cooler take, noting current law already prohibits, to an extent, texting while driving.
Some conservative organizations, while mixing in compliments on the governor’s support for telehealth expansions and scrapping regulations, urged caution.
“The Buckeye Institute strongly cautions the General Assembly to remain prudent when it comes to new and increased spending,” said CEO Robert Alt. “Much of the spending that seems like a good idea today will become a financial burden that taxpayers of Ohio cannot afford in the years to come — particularly when the federal government turns off the COVID stimulus funding. Ohio cannot afford to forget this fundamental reality.”
Americans for Prosperity Director Donovan O’Neil praised some of DeWine’s comments on health care, regulatory rollbacks, and tax cuts but urged restraint elsewhere.
“From distracted driving to education disparities, we stress caution, that the solution to these challenges lies in the creation of new laws or expansion of government,” he said.
This story was originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal and is republished here with permission.
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