Does sleepy summer give way to frenzied fall?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 6, 2006

There’s no call to revisit the two-year state budget, and major bills overhauling elections, targeting fraudulent lending practices and limiting future state spending have all passed. These days, the Statehouse is silent save for the constant low electronic “thrum” from crews repainting the rotunda.

It looks like a sleepy summer in Columbus to kick off the final six months for both Republican Gov. Bob Taft and the GOP-controlled state Legislature.

In past election years marking the end of a two-year General Assembly, lawmakers have returned to Columbus in fall with a vengeance, going through marathon sessions to pass major bills and to leave a legacy before term limits claimed them.

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With a guarantee of a new governor — and perhaps a Democrat for the first time in 16 years — summer calm might give way this year to downright frenzy.

Don’t be lulled by the summer’s sleepy itinerary.

Taft plans to travel to lure businesses to the state now that tax laws have changed, and lawmakers are pinging through their districts, seeking re-election, higher office or at least to retain their seats for their parties.

“The majority party is probably going to lie a little low over the summer with legislative initiatives,” said Philip Russo, director of the Center for Public Management and Regional Affairs at Miami University. “They have a governor who is unpopular. They have a gubernatorial nominee who ran against the party in Columbus, in a sense.”

Other than some optional summer days when lawmakers may be summoned back, the House and Senate have 15 days of work scheduled this November and December. Only a handful of major bills are hanging.

With that in mind, House leaders have not set an agenda, said Tasha Hamilton, spokeswoman for Speaker Jon Husted.

Senate President Bill Harris doesn’t believe the Legislature’s work is done this year.

“We expect to do a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Harris, including a long-awaited state energy policy and the two-year capital budget for spending on state construction and public works.

In 2004, it was campaign finance and limits on jury awards in consumer lawsuits that kept departing lawmakers up nights. Two years earlier, it was concealed weapons and limits on medical malpractice awards.

“Those in authority generally do attempt to have that last hurrah,” said Tom Wiseman, former Defiance mayor who teaches political science at Bowling Green State University.

Harris’ priorities include a series of bills for stricter sentences and continuous electronic monitoring for convicted sex offenders, the Ashland Republican said. Other pending bills include overhauls of the adoption and foster care systems and state public records laws.

Lawmakers also appear to agree with Taft’s last legislative priority, passing a tougher math and science curriculum for Ohio students.

Taft, who pleaded no contest last year to misdemeanor ethics charges, demurs now on talking about leaving a legacy. He’s smart to focus on education and jobs on the way to his exit, Wiseman said.

“That’s probably all he’s really capable of addressing right now given the political environment, and those are substantial issues,” he said.

But anticipation of the next governor, whether it’s Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland or Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, could spur a rush by ruling Republicans to leave a bulwark against sweeping change by a new administration.

If Strickland wins, Russo said, “he’s going to push initiatives that are going to be a little difficult for this General Assembly to embrace widely.”

If it’s Blackwell: “You’re going to have a Republican governor who’s right of most of his party. You might see some interesting sparks.”

Carrie Spencer Ghose writes for the Associated Press.