Cincinnati area lawmakers have ambitious plans for 2014, including voter bill of rights

Reece, Blessing, Driehaus, Mallory outline agendas

Greater Cincinnati’s delegation of state lawmakers will tackle several major issues in 2014.

Items on their agendas include ensuring voter access to polls, deciding whether to expand self-defense laws, helping domestic violence victims and improving early childhood education.

State Rep. Alicia Reece (33rd House District)

The most ambitious item is a plan by State Rep. Alicia Reece (D-Bond Hill), who will lead a campaign to get an initiative on the November ballot for a “voter bill of rights.”

If the measure qualifies for the ballot and is approved by voters, it would adopt voting guidelines into the Ohio Constitution.

Reece will unveil the initiative’s details when it is formally announced on Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 20. It’s aimed at blocking GOP attempts to change requirements for voter registration, like requiring a state-issued photo I.D., and also would establish standards for early voting.

Critics of the earlier proposals, which include Reece, say they unfairly impact poor and minority voters.

“With all the bickering going on, the right to vote should remain sacred and it shouldn’t be one party against the other,” Reece said.

Some of the initiative’s provisions likely will involve standardizing how provisional ballots should be handled and requiring a 35-day period for early voting.

Also, it would codify specific steps for voter registration, which couldn’t be undone through legislation.

“This will be a nonpartisan, grassroots effort,” said Reece, who heads the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. “Everyone will know the rules, and they shouldn’t be changed every week or every month.”

About 358,000 signatures of registered Ohio voters must be collected to make the ballot.

Reece first mentioned the concept of a voter bill of rights amendment in August, when she was a speaker at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. States should enact extra protections, she said, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Also, Reece hopes third time is the charm for her proposal to prohibit employers from using credit checks during the hiring process.

Reece has introduced the proposal twice before, only to see it die in the Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature.

Many people seeking jobs are doing so because they were laid off during the recession, she said, and may have financial problems as a result. That shouldn’t be held against them, Reece added.

“The goal is to get a job so they can pay the bills,” she said.

The bill contains an exemption for positions at financial institutions.

Additionally, Reece will continue her fight against the “stand your ground” provision included in House Bill 203, a wide-ranging gun bill.

The provision abolishes the law requiring a person to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense. Under the proposed change, a person would not have to retreat before using deadly force in defense of one’s self or property.

The bill passed the House 62-27 in November, and is now before the Senate.

Florida has a similar law, which some people say emboldened neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman to shoot and kill teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Zimmerman didn’t cite the law in his defense at a trial, and eventually was acquitted of two felonies.

“It’s the most polarizing legislation in our country right now. We’ve seen what happens when it goes wrong. An innocent child was murdered,” Reece said.

“Our self-defense laws on the books right now are adequate,” she added. “If passed, this will allow all kinds of profiling. It’s a step way backwards.”

State Rep. Louis Blessing III (29th House District)

State Rep. Louis Blessing (R-Colerain Township) has introduced a bill that affects the taxation on gamblers.

H.B. 268 would revive the gambling loss tax deduction that was repealed last year before it ever went into effect. If approved, gambling losses could be used to offset winnings for income tax purposes.

Currently, if someone won $100,000 in a given tax year but lost $100,000 in the same year giving them net winnings of zero, the person still would be taxed on $100,000 of income.

Allowing a tax deduction for losses may help Ohio’s fledgling gaming industry, which generally has had lower revenues than estimated, Blessing said.

“Gambling tax revenue funds our cities, counties and schools, all of which have been hurting due to the recession and cuts to the (Local Government Fund),” Blessing said.

Noting that Pennsylvania had nearly eight times the gambling revenue that Ohio did despite the Buckeye State having more gaming outlets, Blessing thinks part of the difference is due to Pennsylvania allowing gamblers to write off their losses.

“Is it possible that part of Pennsylvania’s success is due to its gambling loss tax deduction?” he asked. “I would bet on it.”

“(The lack of a tax deduction) is a job killer for the gaming industry, as less revenue for the casinos and racetracks means fewer jobs,” Blessing added.

Blessing is co-sponsoring a bill with

State Rep. Peter Stautberg (R-Anderson Township) that’s designed to improve the efficiency of local governments.

If approved, H.B. 4 would create a system of performance measurement. Every two years, the Local Government Innovation Council may award up to $1 million in grants with a maximum of $10,000 per grant to political subdivisions.

The grants would be used to enroll the political subdivision in the International City/County Management Association's Center for Performance Measurement Program.

Local jurisdictions would submit data regarding their spending and policy outcomes -- in the areas of police, fire, and libraries for example -- to the ICMA. It would allow them to compare their outcomes with those of other political subdivisions, which should lead them to either adopt new or reject current policies based on the numbers, Blessing said.

Additionally, Blessing has introduced H.B. 379, also known as the “Good Samaritan immunity” bill.

If approved, the measure would grant immunity from civil liability to engineers, architects and surveyors during a declared state of emergency under certain conditions.

“The intent of this bill is to allow for these professionals to volunteer their services without the fear of being sued if their services have been requested by a local, state or national public official acting in an official capacity,” Blessing said.

“The importance of such legislation may be seen during a natural disaster or terrorist attack that renders buildings, bridges or other structures unsound,” he added. “Rescue teams need the certainty that these structures are safe for their members.”

Blessing also is a supporter of Senate Bill 116, introduced by State Sen. Eric Kearney (D-North Avondale).

It would relax open container laws so eligible political subdivisions could create “entertainment areas” similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. In the past, Cincinnati officials have considered such a designation for Main Street in Over-the-Rhine.

“Certainly public safety issues need to be addressed, but I believe that this legislation will have a positive economic impact in those areas that implement an entertainment district,” he said.

During the next few months, Blessing wants to craft a new House rule that would allow for remote viewing of committee meetings, along with remote testimony by citizens and remote voting by lawmakers.

“The value in doing this is that technology would be harnessed in order to allow for more open and accessible hearings, as well as a General Assembly that could be called to order at a moment’s notice,” he said.

“At this time of year, what with major snow storms and record cold, it would make a great deal of sense,” Blessing said.

State Rep. Denise Driehaus (31st House District)

During the remainder of the current term, State Rep. Denise Driehaus (D-Clifton) will work to restore funding to the Local Government Fund.

In the past few years, the General Assembly has reduced the Local Government Fund by $1 billion, with the city of Cincinnati losing more than $40 million in 2012 and 2013. The cuts have created deficits for various cities and school districts.

“My priorities will be to continue to drive funding to education and the Local Government Fund,” Driehaus said.

Further, Driehaus will lobby for funding for capital budget projects sought by local groups. The requests include $750,000 for Findlay Market, $550,000 for the Incline Theater, $250,000 for Trevarren Flats in Walnut Hills, and $50,000 for the Avondale Comprehensive Development Corp.

“I hope to be a strong advocate for these projects,” she said.

Another of Driehaus’ bills is H.B. 297, which is aimed at helping victims of domestic violence.

If approved, the bill would allow an employee who is a domestic violence victim to take unpaid leave for purposes relating to the incident, like testifying in court, without fear of losing their job.

Additionally, it would allow a tenant who is a victim of domestic violence to terminate a rental agreement or have the tenant's name removed from the agreement under certain circumstances; and require a landlord to change the lock to the dwelling unit where the tenant resides.

“It provides reasonable accommodation for victims in the areas of housing and employment,” Driehaus said. “It would be one less thing a victim has to worry about while going through this.”

Driehaus also is working to get more funding for early childhood education programs, and to have the community learning center model used by some Cincinnati Public Schools emulated across the state.

The schools serve as hubs for community services and offer health services, counseling, after-school programs, nutrition classes, parenting classes, college access services and mentoring.

To help combat the growing use of heroin and painkillers like OxyContin, Driehaus has introduced H.B. 367.

It would require Ohio school districts to include instruction in prescription opioid abuse prevention in their health curriculums. Under the bill, schools must instruct

students on the connection between prescription opioid abuse and addiction to harder drugs, like heroin.

Statistics indicate 21 percent of Ohio’s high school students have used a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription. Of those, nearly half abused narcotic pain relievers.

State Rep. Dale Mallory (32nd House District)

In the New Year, State Rep. Dale Mallory (D-West End) plans to lobby the Ohio Senate to pass its version of H.B. 69.

The bill, which Mallory co-sponsored with State Rep. Ron Maag (R-Lebanon), passed the House by a 64-32 vote in June. It proposes to ban the use of automated traffic cameras to catch speeding motorists, except in school zones.

The use of such cameras has “grossly overreached their intended purpose,” Mallory said. Some cities and villages are using them solely to raise revenues, a Hamilton County judge found last year.

“Originally meant to address public safety, they are now profit-making ventures that have failed the public,” he said.

The Ohio Senate has been reluctant to support the ban. Instead, State Sen. Kevin Bacon (R-Columbus) wants an alternative that would require local law enforcement agencies to review each ticket issued, instead of letting a private operators issue fines.

Mallory countered the cameras violate basic legal concepts, particularly the precept of innocent until proven guilty.

“Regulation cannot address the fundamental due process concerns nor justify the continuation of this program as it is currently being executed,” Mallory said.

Mallory still hopes to persuade Greyhound Lines to move its bus terminal to Queensgate, so a boxing arena can be built at the current site next to the Horseshoe Casino at Broadway Commons.

The idea, first suggested in 2009, has been met with derision by some people. Still, Mallory said it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Mallory wants to secure state or federal funding to help Greyhound build an eco-friendly bus terminal that would reduce air pollution.

“The move will help Greyhound become a green business,” Mallory said. “It can move from its current location to a new facility that will adhere to the standards that will promote sustainability and environmental responsibility.”

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