Lawmakers on losing end of issues look to bills

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Republican lawmakers upset about potential policy setbacks are attempting end-runs around two upcoming ballot issues.

Committees in the House and Senate last week separately approved bills that would allow any Ohio voter to request absentee ballots, and ban the use of all state money for embryonic stem cell research.

Both are fast-track bills related to issues going before voters next month.

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Senate Democrats say Republicans' real aim with their absentee ballot bill is to defeat Issue 2, which would allow voters to request an absentee ballot for any reason.

‘‘We've had all year to deal with election reform,'' said Sen. C.J. Prentiss of Cleveland, the top Senate Democrat. ‘‘This is an attempt to confuse voters in the voting booth next month.''

In the case of stem cell research, some House Republicans are upset that Gov. Bob Taft didn't do more to prevent his high-tech research proposal from ever funding embryonic stem cell research.

Democrats say the GOP is rushing the stem cell bill to defeat State Issue 1, a jobs and construction bond program that also contains $500 million in state funding for biomedical and other science-related research.

‘‘Instead of focusing on the real challenges facing real Ohioans, House Republicans are instead catering to the right wing on divisive social issues,'' said Rep. Chris Redfern of Port Clinton, the top House Democrat.

Republicans say they aren't trying to confuse anyone, but attempting to make improvements to issues they believe are flawed.

In the case of absentee balloting, Republicans argue it's easier to change laws than the constitution if there are problems with the new system.

‘‘It's not something to confuse, but something to try and clarify to people that this is something that should be done, not in the constitution but in the revised code,'' said Senate President Bill Harris, an Ashland Republican.

If lawmakers are interested in challenging constitutional amendments, they should have pushed their own referendum on the ballot weeks ago, said Carolyn Tolbert, a Kent State University political science professor.

She said it's questionable how a law could trump a constitutional amendment, and said voters won't connect the bill to the ballot issue.

‘‘This may be an attempt, but it's just late, and it would be ineffective,'' Tolbert said.

The absentee ballot bill, which also includes a provision to allow some 17-year-olds to become volunteer poll workers and alleviate a shortage, is expected to go before the full Senate this week.

Chances of the stem cell bill ever reaching Taft's desk are more uncertain. House Speaker Jon Husted is still deciding whether to bring it to the full House for a vote.

Should it reach the Senate soon, Harris is unlikely to pass it before Ohioans vote on Nov. 8.

Republicans are likely looking ahead to 2006 and doing what they can to energize their supporters with such bills, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

An ongoing investment scandal and Taft's historic conviction on ethics charges in August have Democrats hoping for big gains in next year's elections.

Republicans are ‘‘probably looking at the '06 elections and saying, 'How can we respond to the tsunami that's coming?''' Sabato said. ‘‘Without an energized base, they're sunk.''

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is the statehouse correspondent for The Ohio Associated Press' Columbus bureau.