Election, donations explain Statehouse lull

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Things are numbingly slow at the Statehouse these days and politics can help explain why.

Why wouldn’t House Speaker Jon Husted, an ambitious young Republican, be packing the House calendar with favorite policy initiatives he wants to see completed before he is forced from his post in 2008?

Officially, Husted blames Gov. Ted Strickland.

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He says Strickland, a Democrat, aspires to be the next vice president and accuses him of spending too much time on national politics and too little time bettering Ohio.

“Right now we’re at a point in Ohio where we’ve got about six more months to do important things before we’re dominated by the presidential election, which just makes it very difficult to accomplish things,” Husted recently told The Findlay Courier.

Strickland, who denies any interest in the vice presidency, blames Husted.

Insisting he has no interest in the vice presidency, Strickland says it is Husted who’s holding up the state’s policy progress — particularly on an energy bill the governor wanted to see pass by year’s end.

“Is the House going to deal with it in a timely manner, or are they going to drag their feet and so weaken the bill that it is ineffective? They need to go to work,” he told the Warren Tribune Chronicle during a Tuesday visit to Youngs-town.

In reality, with six weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, neither politician wants to make a misstep in this politically pivotal state.

For Husted and the Republicans that means keeping Strickland’s policy victories in perspective.

Much of the success of the new governor’s $52 billion, two-year operating budget, for example, is thanks to the cooperation he enjoyed from the GOP-controlled Legislature, Husted emphasized during his newspaper visit.

And Strickland’s energy bill will not be such a political slam dunk, Husted said. He questioned the bill’s constitutionality and called it “salvageable.”

For Strickland’s part, passing the energy bill would represent more than bragging rights. It would also stop the steady flow of donations to the Republican caucuses at the Statehouse, whose majority his party has visions of overtaking in 2008.

Utility companies seeking to influence the future of electricity regulation in the state are pouring money into Republican campaign funds. According to a recent Associated Press review, FirstEnergy, Duke and American Electric Power had given at last $281,000 combined to state and local campaigns so far this year, most of it to GOP leaders overseeing the bill’s trip through the Statehouse.

Catherine Turcer, campaign reform director for Ohio Citizen Action, a government watchdog group, said such legislation is destined to continue to generate big money for Statehouse politicians as long as it’s unresolved.

You have these very different vested interests that actually have a lot of cash, and the way they can influence the process is by making these campaign contributions,” she said. “It’s a typical juicer bill, as in let’s see what we can squeeze out of this.”

At the same time, Turcer predicts that the delays will not extend too far into the new year, because leaders in both parties need to get focused on elections ahead of the March 4 primary.

The state must have new energy guidelines in place by the end of next year, and Strickland says he would like to have a year to get them implemented. But, Turcer says, the push for passing the bill by the end of the year is somewhat artificial.

Husted has set the bill for a hearing a week through January.

“What’s the great rush? There really isn’t a huge need to get this done by Dec. 31 on the dot. But everybody, no matter who they are, wants to have this done before we get into elections and people are busy campaigning,” Turcer said. “On the other hand, a little bit of feet dragging doesn’t hurt on the campaign contributions front.”

Julie Carr Smyth is a reporter for The Associated Press