Ohio legislature’s lame-duck actions favor low worker pay, fewer abortions

Republicans continue their campaign against cities, towns in deciding what laws are best.

Dec 13, 2016 at 10:39 am

In the Ohio General Assembly’s final session before adjourning for the holidays, the Republican majority in both chambers gave conservative constituents ample reason to be merry.

One was a business-friendly measure that would preclude Ohio localities from raising their minimum wages. It was inserted into a Senate bill aimed at stripping cities of another matter of local control — how pet stores procure puppies. Several other measures were stuffed into the bill, including one outlawing bestiality in Ohio. The Senate passed the multi-headed bill by a 21-to-10 vote, the House 55 to 42.

If signed into law by Republican Gov. John Kasich, grassroots efforts to raise minimum wages across Ohio would face a new roadblock. The state’s hourly minimum pay will rise to $8.15 from $8.10 in January, but that’s too puny for advocates of higher pay. Cleveland voters are set to vote May 2 on a phased-in increase to $15 an hour over four years. A Cincinnati group has collected 11,500 signatures for a ballot issue next year calling for a minimum wage hike to $15 by 2021.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Ohio Gov. John Kasich

“It’s pretty remarkable that they stuck the amendment into a bill on puppy mills,” says Evan Hennessy, a social worker who organized Cincinnatians for a Strong Economy, the group behind the ballot question. “They’re screwing workers and puppies at the same time.” 

Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld was also rattled by the proposed law. A Democrat, he calls it “the latest example of misguided overreach” by the legislature.

“Raising the minimum wage is good for working Ohioans and also good for our overall economy as it puts more money back in the pockets of consumers,” he says. “Since the state refuses to raise the minimum wage statewide to a livable amount, blocking cities from taking action is blocking progress, plain and simple.” 

Hennessy says that rents and other living costs in Cincinnati have risen along with the city’s urban revival in recent years. He says his group is prepared to go another route if Kasich signs the state bill into law.

“Essentially I think the next step would be to look forward to the state level and a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage and to let municipalities raise the minimum wage as they see fit,” Hennessy says. 

City of Cincinnati spokesman Rocky Merz said the bill would not affect the so-called "living wage" ordinance passed earlier this year. It calls for a minimum $15-an-hour rate of pay for full-time city employees, $10.10 for part-timers.

Historically, Republicans were champions of the notion of “home rule” and “local control,” whereby cities and counties were allowed to govern themselves with a minimum of intrusive federal and state laws. Sandy Theis, executive director of the left-leaning ProgressOhio, says Republican lawmakers have steadily wrested power from local communities.

“Ohio is a large, diverse state, and the politics and economies of Ohio cities and villages differ based on where you live,” Theis says. “That’s why Ohio’s constitutional tradition has long held a city or village’s voters — not well-financed lobbyists in Columbus — are the best judges of what’s best for their residents.

“I remember when Republicans used to champion ‘local control,’ ” she adds. “Today that seems to mean ‘control the locals.’ ” 

Two other bills would not only appease pro-life voters but would give Ohio some of the strongest anti-abortion provisions in the nation.

As in the case of the bill banning local increases in minimum wages, the “Unborn Heartbeat Protection” provision — popularly called a heartbeat bill — was introduced as an amendment to another bill, one on child abuse reporting. It would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically at about six weeks, and includes no exclusions for rape or incest. The House passed the bill 56 to 39, the Senate 21 to 10. 

Paula Westwood, executive director of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati, says the bill affirms the belief that “unborn children with beating hearts in Ohio deserve protection and life.” She says her organization and others in the state expect Kasich to sign the bill into law. It becomes law if he doesn’t sign it 10 days after passage.

Two days after the legislature passed the heartbeat bill, it passed — along party lines — a ban on abortions at 20 weeks. Federal courts have struck down both laws, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld those rulings by choosing not to hear appeals. 

Still, abortion supporters in Ohio are not taking a chance and are lobbying Kasich to veto both bills.

“Folks are reaching out of the woodwork to really make sure their voices are heard,” says Gabriel Mann, communications manager for NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio in Columbus. “Many are just regular Ohioans who want to take this thing to the governor’s office.”

CONTACT JAMES McNAIR: j[email protected]@JMacNews on Twitter / 513-665-4700, x. 142