The pandemic slowed down work at the Ohio Statehouse in 2020. But lawmakers did pass a number of bills relating to COVID-19, as well as others that dealt with controversial issues like guns and abortion.
Perhaps the biggest bill Ohio lawmakers passed in 2020 was a $1.3 billion measure funding capital projects and providing $350 million in federal CARES Act funding for improvements for schools and public. In September, they also passed legislation that protected schools and businesses from being sued because of the transmission of coronavirus.
Gov. Mike DeWine said the legislation does two key things.
“We believe we can do two things at once," DeWine said. "One is to fight the COVID the virus and keep people safe, but at the same time we know that we have to have the economy coming back. And we are making some progress in that area."
DeWine wasn't on board with several other proposals that came to his desk, however. Many lawmakers and Ohioans took issue with the governor's response to the pandemic, including the statewide shutdown orders he issued in the spring, sparking protests at the Statehouse.
Critics claimed DeWine was killing Ohio’s economy, and said he was picking winners and losers by allowing large retailers to stay open as "essential businesses" while ordering shutdowns of smaller stores that sold some of the same items.
Republicans pushed a bill to strip DeWine of the power to close businesses, but DeWine vetoed it. Although Ohio lawmakers talked about trying to override it, but Republican Senate President Larry Obhof ultimately said they included that part about business equity in Sub House Bill 609, an appropriations bill passed during the lame-duck session.
“So that you can’t have the situation we saw last spring, where small businesses close or get heavily regulated while larger ones, since they are deemed essential, get to stay open," Obhof said.
At the onset of the pandemic, when dining was still closed, Ohio started allowing restaurants to serve alcoholic drinks with to-go meals. That became permanent this fall, with state Rep. DJ Swearingen (R-Huron) quoting the Rolling Stones.
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need, and Ohio’s bar and restaurant owners need this bill," Swearingen said on the House floor before the vote.
Alcoholic ice cream also became legal in Ohio. But otherwise, this proved a challenging year for Ohio legislators.
In both the Ohio House and Senate, several members on both sides of the aisle tested positive for COVID-19. State Reps. John Patterson (D-Ashtabula) and John Rogers (D-Mentor on the Lake) were hospitalized, and other lawmakers missed sessions due to coronavirus exposure. Despite repeated attempts from Democrats, Republican legislative leaders rejected attempts to require face masks for lawmakers.
Ohio House members also had to take time out in the summer to replace Republican Larry Householder (R-Glenford) as speaker, after he was arrested and charged with engineering a $61 million pay-to-play conspiracy tied to the state's recent nuclear bailout.
Before the two-year session ended in December, Ohio lawmakers did find time to tackle a perennial favorite of Republicans: anti-abortion bills. One bill prevents doctors from using telemedicine to prescribe abortion medications, while another – signed into law this week by DeWine – requires fetal remains from surgical abortions to be buried or cremated.
State Rep. Erica Crawley (D-Columbus) called her Republican colleagues who voted to pass the anti-abortion bills hypocrites, because they aren’t passing any of the proposed legislation that would directly deal with infant and maternal mortality.
“It is unacceptable that this General Assembly, the members in this House and Chamber, will continue to talk about the dignity of life but allow women to continue to die," Crawley said.
During the lame-duck, Republicans also pushed through a measure to establish Ohio as a "Stand Your Ground" state – stripping the requirement to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense – into a bill that would grant civil immunity for deaths or injuries from handguns. However, DeWine has suggested he will veto the bill, after criticizing legislators for failing to pass any gun control measures following a deadly mass shooting in Dayton last year.
Lawmakers did pass a measure that would stop surprise medical bills from out-of-network providers – which will be especially important as hospitals fill up from a surge of COVID-19 patients. Ohio Association of Health Plans president Kelly O’Reilly said this will help one in six Ohioans who get bills with expensive out of network charges.
“And most can’t afford to pay them. It’s unexpected and many times or sometimes, a very high cost," O'Reilly said.