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 the bipartisan hopes of Democrats who supported his surprise election after weeks of intraparty pressure.
Signaling unity at a Statehouse news conference by appearing with a large group from his fractured supermajority, Stephens said his caucus’ top bills are aimed at improving Ohio’s economy, supporting families and improving education.
“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 of the list’s priorities are being advanced 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 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’re 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.
Merrin and his allies had scheduled a meeting of what they’ve dubbed the “Republican Majority Caucus” to be held after Stephens’ news conference, and had scheduled an afternoon news conference to discuss it.
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.
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.