To gain an understanding of what’s driving the legislative agenda in Ohio, just look at the hometowns of Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers.
In the Ohio House, Republicans are balking at Gov. John Kasich’s budget plan. An extension of the sales tax is under fire, as is a hike in the severance tax and an expansion of Medicaid.
Who’s asking questions? In the lead are Reps. Gary Scherer, of Circleville, and Peter Beck, of Mason. (Circleville, in Pickaway County, has a population of about 13,000; Mason, in Warren County, about 30,000.)
In the Senate, Kris Jordan and Tim Schaffer have introduced a bill that would attempt to make it illegal for local, state, federal and even international agencies to enforce any new federal gun bans or registries. Agents would be charged with first-degree felonies. (Jordan is from Ostrander, in Delaware County, with a population of 659. Schaffer is from Lancaster, in Fairfield County, with a population of about 39,000.)
I could go on. The question isn’t whether small-town, conservative Ohio should have a voice at the Statehouse, but whether that voice should have such a powerful impact.
Legislative analysis by hometown, however rough, indicates that Ohio’s political system is out of whack. That is so mainly because legislative districts are out of whack, drawn under a system that gives the party in power the right to contort district lines to its advantage.
After the past census, Republicans were in control of the statewide offices that dominate the state apportionment board, which drew legislative districts that packed Democrats into urban areas, leaving the GOP dominant in suburban and rural areas. The GOP has majorities, even though more voters chose Democratic House candidates than Republicans.
The Republican-dominated legislature redrew congressional lines in much the same fashion, the GOP winning 12 of 16 seats from safe districts, even though the state went for Barack Obama and Sherrod Brown.
Legislative priorities for the GOP majorities at the Statehouse and for the GOP delegation to the U.S. House are now skewed to the right, making compromise difficult because incumbents are more worried about challengers from the right taking them out in a primary than Democrats in the general election.
That is why it is a fundamental priority for the legislature to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would change Ohio’s partisan system to one that requires bipartisan compromise. That would result in more compact, competitive districts, and more moderates.
The Senate is ready to act on a plan to create a seven-member, bipartisan commission that would require at least one vote from the minority party to approve new districts. The Senate passed such a plan in the past session, on an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, but it died in the House.
The trouble is, House Speaker Bill Batchelder prefers that redistricting reform be given to a Constitutional Modernization Commission. The 32-member commission, charged with taking a long-term look at the entire constitution, could easily delay redistricting reform.
The matter hardly needs further study, and any amendment proposed by the commission would have to come back to the legislature for a vote to place it on the ballot.
After 2014, it will be too late. Political maneuvering will begin for the 2018 elections, which will determine the next apportionment board and influence the composition of state legislature that will redraw congressional lines after the 2020 census.
Jon Husted, Ohio secretary of state, who pushed a plan for a bipartisan commission when he was in the Senate, favors the current plan, the work of a legislative task force that includes Sens. Frank LaRose, a Copley Township Republican, and Tom Sawyer, an Akron Democrat.
In an interview this week, Husted noted that amendments to bring casino gambling to Ohio failed repeatedly until 2009, when backers took advantage of voters’ frustration with a poor economy.
Twice, Ohio voters have rejected flawed, overly complex plans to change how political districts are redrawn. If the legislature does not act quickly, Husted fears that growing frustration with Ohio’s districts will lead voters to approve a citizens’ initiative that proves unwieldy, subject to lawsuits and dangerous to judicial independence by having judges appoint a citizens commission.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.