Committee has responsibility to follow law

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A last minute decision to pull two rules off the JCARR agenda this week frustrated members of veterans, fraternal and sporting organizations and averted a difficult vote for those of us on the committee.

The rules dealt with how much net profit veterans and fraternal organizations can keep from bingo games at their halls. The proposed rules increased the amount from $75,000 to $150,000.

This would have been a difficult vote for members because, while we support the charitable work of these groups, the proposed rules were, in our opinion, a clear violation of both the statutory authority of the Attorney General’s office and the intent of the legislature when the bill was passed.

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Either one of these points would have been sufficient reason to reject the rules.

I am vice chairman of this joint committee of Senate and House members. We are responsible for reviewing rules proposed by state agencies. All new rules must be approved and existing rules must be reviewed every five years.

So what was expected to be an uneventful meeting turned problematic hours before our vote when a final review of the proposed rules identified the problems. I received a phone call on Friday afternoon alerting me to the potential problem, and clarifying phone calls on my drive to Columbus Monday morning.

Weekend emails from veterans groups underscored the political sensitivity of rejecting these rules. The e-mails emphasized the urgent need for additional funds to keep local VFW and American Legion Halls open. Most depend on bingo or instant bingo for those operating funds. And all politicians know veterans and their families vote. Elected officials don’t want to alienate a large block of voters.

The bingo and instant bingo games provide the funds these groups use to support local charitable causes. In many smaller communities these veterans and fraternal groups are one of the primary sources of support for school and community groups such as youth sports teams.

Within my 14th Senate district these groups help provide needed equipment at the VA Hospital and the Southern Ohio Veterans Home in Georgetown.

The Attorney General felt he had the statutory authority to increase the amount of money the veterans, fraternal and sporting organizations could keep to pay their operating expenses from $75,000 to $150,000 a year. Our opinion was different, and the language seemed clear to me.

The law gives the AG the authority to “adjust for changes in prices as measured by the consumer price index …”

I am not an attorney, but I read that to mean any adjustments in price must be determined by increases in the consumer price index. If, for instance, the consumer price index went up 5 percent in a year, the AG could increase the $75,000 amount by 5 percent.

However, what the AG wanted to do was increase the price by 100 percent to account for projected increases in the CPI. That is not what the statute says. Even though members of JCARR supported the need for an increase, the statute was clear, and our responsibility was to follow the statute, even at the risk of alienating a large group of voters.

After a short committee recess and some animated discussions, the AG agreed to pull the rule for this meeting to provide time to work with legislators to correct the language and provide relief to these organizations. The goal is laudable, but the process is important as well.

Sen. Tom Niehaus represents the 14th District.