Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Ohio newspapers:
Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act an unnecessary distraction
Akron Beacon Journal
The state of Ohio faces no shortage of pressing challenges.
Gun safety. School funding. Health care. Energy policy. Pollution. Taxes. Voting rights.
Which is why we are perplexed by some of the issues on which the Ohio General Assembly has instead decided to focus even a portion of its attention.
Consider House Bill 164, the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019,” which passed 61-31 in the House and is under consideration in the Senate.
The bill would do three main things, and each is problematic.0.
It would give student religious groups the same access to school facilities for meetings and events as secular groups.
Who could have a problem with that? Well, as long as each group is treated equally no one should. But with more than 300 religions and denominations — including paganism, Wicca and Satanism — in the United States, it’s not difficult to see controversy arising if certain religious groups try to meet at the local high school.
It would lift bans that limit student expression of religion to lunch or non-instructional periods.
Again, that seems like a simple matter of free speech, which everyone can agree should be protected ... and, in fact, much of it already is.
According to findlaw.com, “Students can typically pray in school as long as they are not disruptive when praying and it does not interfere with classroom instruction or other educational activities. This includes other areas besides the classroom like the cafeteria, locker room, and hallways.”
The concern, however, is the bill goes beyond protecting free speech and could cross over into enabling outright religious promotion.
On May 18, in testimony to the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee, Gary Daniels of the American Civil Liberties Union warned the bill “gives religious speech more protection than secular speech ... (which) can and ultimately will result in the proselytization and unwanted coercion of students of different religious beliefs and those with none.”
It would abolish any restrictions on students from engaging in religious expression in completion of homework, artwork or other assignments.
Again, a student including a religious theme in artwork seems harmless, but many see the bill as a Trojan horse for sneaking religion into science classrooms. Daniels of the ACLU raised the example of a student claiming in a biology homework assignment that Earth is less than 10,000 years old. Would she receive a lesser grade? No, he said, because HB 164 would not allow it.
Despite what appears to be a Pandora’s box of potential issues, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Ginter, R-Salem, stood by it. The “bill is not an expansion but a clarification (of) what students can and cannot do in religious expression,” he said.
Considering the needless confusion, it’s already created, and that which it surely would if it became law, we say it’s time for the General Assembly to flunk HB 164 and move on to more urgent matters.
Unintended consequences hinder SB 3
The Canton Repository
That’s a risk anytime lawmakers take a stab at solving complicated societal issues.
Health care, public education, unemployment insurance and Medicaid are among recent examples of complex topics Ohio lawmakers have attempted to address. And a sloppy fix, no matter its good intentions, often introduces as many problems as it solves.
Add reducing the state’s prison population to that list.
For the past couple of years in Ohio, lawmakers — and, last year, the public — have tried to use drug sentencing reforms as a direct route to solve another pesky issue: reducing the state’s prison population.
It’s an understandable approach to tackling the issue. Early this year, a sister newspaper reported that Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction data indicated between 1,500 and 2,000 inmates are incarcerated at any moment for convictions on low-level felony drug possession. Move those inmates from incarceration to treatment, the thinking goes, and not only would the state be dealing with Ohioans’ drug abuse problem in a more effective and compassionate manner, but it also would save taxpayers millions of dollars directed at overcrowded prisons.
Enter Senate Bill 3.
Introduced early this year as a legislative alternative to the failed attempt to address the issue though a constitutional amendment — State Issue 1, which voters rejected in 2018 — SB 3 seeks to create a clearer distinction between drug offenders — users caught in a cycle of addition who are harming themselves and who could respond favorably to treatment programs — and drug traffickers looking to harm others.
Proponents of Senate Bill 3 say the way it sets tiers for trafficking offenses, based on the amount of drugs a person possesses at the time of arrest (thus determining what would be considered a felony), would classify more offenses as misdemeanors. As a result, they say, more offenders would be directed into court-ordered treatment rather than sent to state prison.
Problem solved, right?
Not so fast, say many in law enforcement and in the judicial system.
As written, SB 3 “opens up the gates to drug trafficking,” said Stark County Common Pleas Judge Taryn Heath.
After witnessing a presentation that included Heath, the county’s four other common pleas judges, Sheriff George Maier, his top inspector and plenty of visual aids, we’re also concerned this iteration of legislation designed to reduce prison population could succeed in that area at a steep price: creating a new set of serious community issues.
Unintended consequences, such as allowing traffickers to carry enough heroin or meth — more than 20 doses — to face only a misdemeanor charge instead of the current felony threat, in some cases as high as a third-degree felony leading to significant jail time.
We cannot support a law with such a glaring weakness.
To his credit, sponsor John Eklund, a Republican from Geauga County, is listening to critics.
Last month, Eklund told a Gannett reporter he has received nearly 30 amendments since introducing SB 3 in February. He said he plans to circulate the list this week, gauge reaction from colleagues in the Senate, then call for a vote to move the bill out of committee before Christmas.
A present for Ohioans would be an improved bill that serves both the needs of those who can benefit from drug treatment while protecting the community from harmful unintended consequences.
Bengals owe fans a vision of the future
The Cincinnati Bengals are bad. Historically bad, in fact. The Bengals set a franchise record for futility last week when the team lost at home to rival Pittsburgh, dropping to 0-11. It was the team's 13th consecutive loss dating back to last season. So what happens now?
If any other business performed this badly for this long, dramatic changes would have been made by now. Not so with the Bengals. There doesn't seem to be any long-term strategy with this organization. And if there is a plan, nobody outside of the Brown brain trust seems to have a clue what it is. The Bengals' organizational leadership owes it to fans to reveal their vision of the future, at least in part, especially if the Brown family expects season ticketholders to renew next year.
Some of the fixes are obvious and long clamored for: hire a general manager, expand the team's scouting department, invest more in analytics. Ousting rookie head coach Zac Taylor after one year might be premature, but after such a lackluster, and so far winless season, doesn't there at least have to be a discussion about the future of the coaching staff?
At the very least, management can start by acknowledging the Bengals are in rebuilding mode, something the front office has been reluctant to do. The Bengals frustrated fans and confounded pro football pundits when they stood pat at the trade deadline last month instead of dealing aging but talented players such as A.J. Green, Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Cordy Glenn, or even then-benched quarterback Andy Dalton, for future draft picks. Given the Bengals reluctance to dabble in free agency, the draft might be the only way this team gets the infusion of youth and talent it needs to be competitive again.
Accumulating draft picks, a la the Miami Dolphins, would have sent a message to fans that the Bengals are planning and thinking about the future. Instead, making no transactions told fans the Bengals are in denial about their prospects and comfortable with the status quo. It's difficult to ask a fanbase that has waited 27 years for a playoff win to be patient. But they might be, if they believe their team has a plan.
The only thing that seems reasonably certain right now is that the Bengals will end the season holding the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Carson Palmer was the last, but an injury and team frustrations sent him packing. Akili Smith was a bust. Ki-Jana Carter blew out his knee and was never the same. Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson never lived up to his potential or the hype. So given the team's track record drafting snake-bitten players, fans can't even take that into comfort.
There may be no other private business that has more public investment than professional sports. We, the fans, feel like the Bengals are part of our family, and we are owners too. (Hamilton County taxpayers actually own Paul Brown Stadium courtesy of the worst stadium financing deal in American sports history.) It's a relationship that has been cultivated since the team's inception in 1968.
There doesn't seem to be any real commitment by owner Mike Brown to winning – something former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said he was frustrated by in a recent interview. That lack of commitment and ownership's reputation for being cheap has become a stain on this city and has made the Bengals a national embarrassment.
The Bengals stadium lease ends in 2026 and some in the Queen City are already questioning whether the Bengals should stay or go. To be clear, being an NFL city is an asset and the team, through the philanthropy and volunteerism of players, coaches and the organization, has a profound impact on our community. But the Bengals can't expect fans to continue to show their support with the product that is currently being put on the field. The empty seats at PBS on Sundays speak louder than words.
Loyal Bengals fans who have stuck with this team, which has been mired in mediocrity or less than that for nearly three decades, deserve better. They deserve championships. At the very least, they deserve a plan. Can someone please tell us what it is?
High court should resolve 90-day referendum issue
Since 1912, Ohioans have had the constitutional right of referendum — the power to reject laws passed by the General Assembly.
Voters have used it sparingly — only 13 times in 107 years. From the 1940s through the 1980s, Ohioans did not vote on a single statewide referendum.
In those 13 elections, Ohioans twice voted “Yes” to uphold legislative decisions — in November 1920, to affirm ratification of the 18th Amendment ushering in Prohibition; and in November 2008, to uphold a law restricting “payday lending.”
Of the 11 “No” votes to overturn acts of the legislature, perhaps the most notable was the rejection in November 2011 of a law to limit public sector collective bargaining.
The primary reason Ohio’s referendum has been rarely used is its difficulty. Within 90 days of a governor sending a signed bill to the secretary of state, petitioners must gather signatures of registered voters equal to at least 6% of the number who voted in the most recent election for governor. At present, that requires 265,774 valid signatures.
What’s more, the signatures must come from at least half (44) of Ohio’s counties, and each of those counties must supply signatures equaling at least 3% of the number who voted in that county in the most recent election for governor.
This is a herculean task, designed as such. Acts of the legislature should not be easy to overturn. If a referendum coalition overcomes these obstacles, the law in question is suspended pending a statewide vote in the next general election.
Although legislative acts should be difficult to overturn, Ohioans’ constitutional right to do so via referendum should not be diminished or sabotaged.
Now, the Ohio Supreme Court has a historic opportunity to decide whether Ohioans’ referendum rights were unconstitutionally compressed in their effort to overturn legislative approval of House Bill 6, a measure to funnel $150 million a year to two struggling nuclear-power plants along Lake Erie.
HB 6 imposes monthly surcharges on most Ohioans’ electric bills to generate $1 billion over seven years for FirstEnergy Solutions, owner of the nuclear plants. It also reduces green-energy standards and continues surcharges to subsidize two coal-fired power plants.
At the heart of the case is whether the Ohio Constitution’s guarantee of 90 days to gather referendum signatures really means 90 days.
In 1929, nearly two decades after Ohioans adopted the referendum, the legislature approved a law “to facilitate” its use.
Among the added hurdles:
‒Petitioners must file an “initial petition” with the secretary of state containing at least 1,000 proper signatures and the full text and summary of the law or section of law to be referred to voters. The secretary of state has 10 business days to verify the validity of the signatures and the description of the law.
‒The attorney general, within the same 10-day period, must determine whether the petitioner’s summary of the law being challenged is “fair and truthful.”
‒While these reviews are being conducted, referendum petitioners are not permitted to gather signatures.
‒If the attorney general deems any portion of the summary flawed, petitioners must go back to square one, restarting the entire initial petition process.
The 1929 law effectively shortens the Ohio Constitution’s 90-day guarantee to citizens utilizing the referendum. It empowers an attorney general, whether politically motivated or not, to abridge a constitutional right.
In this case, Gov. Mike DeWine signed HB 6 on July 23 and filed it with the secretary of state. That began the 90-day period, meaning the referendum group — Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts — was required to submit 265,774 signatures to the secretary of state by Oct. 22.
On July 29, the referendum coalition filed its initial petition with the attorney general and secretary of state.
On Aug. 12, Attorney General Dave Yost rejected the group’s initial petition as falling short of “fair and truthful.” That required Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts to draft a new initial petition.
On Aug. 16, the referendum group filed a revised petition with the attorney general and secretary of state.
Finally, on Aug. 29, Yost certified the group’s revised petition as a “fair and truthful” statement. The next day, Secretary of State Frank LaRose notified the referendum group its revised petition contained the required 1,000 valid signatures.
By this time, the referendum coalition had lost 38 days, leaving only 52 days for the monumental task of gathering more than a quarter-million signatures. The coalition’s efforts were further obstructed by an unprecedented array of dirty tricks by a dark-money group allied with FirstEnergy Solutions. The tactics included hiring “blockers” to surround, harass and intimidate petition circulators.
In the face of these obstacles, the signature-gathering effort came up short. The referendum coalition said it had gathered just 221,092 by the deadline.
The coalition filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming the shortening of the 90-day period was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech. On Oct. 23, U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. ruled Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts turned to the wrong court. The legal questions belong before the Ohio Supreme Court, he said.
Following the Ohio Supreme Court’s rules of practice, Sargus certified five state law questions to the court, all centering on whether and under what circumstances the state constitution’s 90-day referendum guarantee can be shortened.
This is a common practice in Ohio when federal courts determine there is an unclear issue of state law “for which there is no controlling precedent” in decisions by the Ohio Supreme Court and the resolution of that issue will either eliminate the need for a decision on the federal constitution or will change the nature of the issue before the federal court. Since 2010, federal courts in Ohio have certified 31 questions of state law to the Ohio Supreme Court. Of those, 24 have been accepted.
It is surprising that, since adoption of the referendum in 1912, the Ohio Supreme Court has not directly or even indirectly addressed the core issue now at hand: Does the state constitution’s guarantee of 90 days to gather referendum signatures really mean 90 days?
All Ohioans deserve to know whether this fundamental right can be abridged. And, if so, how and why?
In 1915, the Ohio Supreme Court described voters’ initiative and referendum powers as “essential safeguards to representative government.” More than a century later, the court has a historic opportunity to give meaning to that promise.
The Dispatch encourages the court to accept the challenge.