COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Fledgling Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens laid out an unflinchingly conservative list of Republican priority bills for the new legislative session on Wednesday, appearing to sideline some bipartisan hopes of Democrats who supported his surprise election after weeks of intraparty pressure.
Yet the display appeared to do virtually nothing to unify his fractured supermajority.
Trying to signal unity at a Statehouse news conference by appearing with a large group of fellow Republicans, Stephens said his caucus’ top bills are aimed at bolstering Ohio’s economy, supporting families and improving educational opportunities.
“We have work to do to ensure that we can attract and retain the brightest to come here and to stay here,” the southern Ohio Republican said.
Most bills on the list are among those being pushed by a coalition of deep-pocketed conservative leaders, groups and PACs that have backed party censure and campaign-style attacks on the 22 of 67 House Republicans who joined all 32 House Democrats in supporting Stephens for speaker over state Rep. Derek Merrin, of the Toledo area.
The 12 priority bills — many mere placeholders with scant text — include legislation to lower Ohio’s income tax, ban transgender girls from playing girls sports and advance parents’ rights in education.
Stephens also included a universal school voucher bill, nicknamed the “backpack bill,” on the list — despite openly questioning the wisdom of such legislation earlier. The legislation would provide scholarships for every schoolchild, whether they are attending public, private or even home schools.
Stephens said he also has referred a proposed ballot measure to committee that would make it more difficult to amend the Ohio Constitution, raising the threshold for passage from 50% to 60%. A large coalition of voter advocacy, civil rights, labor and faith groups have vowed to fight the measure if lawmakers put it on the ballot.
But how these priorities will move forward is anyone’s guess.
Since Stephens’ victory over Merrin in January, House Republicans have been fractured into Stephens and Merrin contingents. Neither has the needed 50 votes to pass legislation without either cooperating with each other or getting help from Democrats.
At a news conference of their own, Merrin and his allies did not back down from their fight. Merrin referred to the bills as “the priorities of Jason Stephens and the Democrats,” notably skipping use of Stephen’s speaker title.
Despite sharing strikingly similar policy priorities to what Stephens laid out, such as school vouchers, the 60% constitutional amendment proposal and tax reform — and pledging to support many of the priority bills in principle __ the group said they are waiting to see whether they make it to the floor intact.
“Giving things a number is not really much consolation,” said state Rep. Brian Stewart, sponsor of the 60% measure and a Merrin ally.
“The question is, is it going to be gutted in Rules and Reference, is it going to be watered down, is leadership going to take a hatchet to what our caucus is trying to see done?” he said. “We hope that doesn’t happen. We’re certainly going to trust but verify here. But being referred to a committee is just the basics.”
Merrin said his group also plans to bring forward its own legislative priorities soon, once again reiterating his claim that he leads the GOP caucus by virtue of speaking for more than half of them.
Democrats signaled their continuing interest in bipartisanship, despite staunch opposition to the transgender sports ban and the backpack bill.
“This is where the real work of putting people over politics begins,” House Democratic Leader Allison Russo said in a statement. “There’s a lot we agree on, and some things we are miles away on.”
One thing Russo said she doesn’t want to spend time on is “needless culture wars.”
“I’m hopeful we will show that Democrats and Republicans are capable of compromise and can put aside our differences to ensure every working family has the opportunities needed to prosper– no matter their zip code.”
Additional priority bills include support for the health of mothers and children, addressing the state’s teacher shortage, making it easier to adopt children in Ohio and revamping the state’s Department of Education.
The dozen priority measures were among 52 pieces of legislation finally released to committees Wednesday, some with Democrats leading the charge.
Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.