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Ohio lawmaking at complete standstill

American Red Cross lobbyist Mike Farley wishes Ohio lawmakers could just get along. Their rivalry is costing his organization about 27 pints of blood a day.

Both the Democrat-led Ohio House and the Republican-led Ohio Senate have unanimously passed a Red Cross-backed bill that would allow 16-year-olds to donate blood with parental consent. Some 25 other states already have similar provisions.

Yet the two chambers have yet to unify their virtually identical legislation and send a final bill to the governor. It’s been a month or, by Farley’s math, 800 units of blood.

‘‘We are thrilled with the unanimous support we’ve received in both chambers. The lawmakers should be commended,’’ he said. ‘‘But we would very much appreciate getting a bill ready for the governor’s signature.’’

Certainly, not everything about the bill’s fate can be explained by partisan rancor. State legislators have been wrestling with the details of one of the toughest budgets in recent memory — a voluminous policy document that includes Gov. Ted Strickland’s rewrite of Ohio’s school-funding formula as well as billions of dollars in complex federal stimulus funding.

But it is a far cry from last budget season.

Two years ago, the state’s then-new Democratic governor and the Republican-led Legislature were being described with phrases like ‘‘love fest’’ and ‘‘kum-bay-ah.’’ Strickland was still in his honeymoon phase, and managed to see his first budget passed with the support of all but one lawmaker.

There are never many bills that make it through the Legislature while the budget is in progress. Two years ago, there were fewer than a dozen completed by the end of May 2007.

This year, the situation is extreme — as the inertia of Farley’s popular bill shows. Just one piece of legislation, the state transportation budget, has made it to Strickland’s desk since the session began in January. Some 308 others have been introduced, passing in just one chamber or neither chamber.

Among those relatively innocuous items that are languishing are:

— a bill requiring snow to be removed from handicap parking spaces within 24 hours of a snowfall;

— a bill declaring April ‘‘Community Theater Month;’’

— a bill requiring that a bittering agent be added to engine coolant and antifreeze to prevent ingestion;

— a bill creating a state registry of arson offenders;

— a bill creating a commission to plan the state’s bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812; and,

— a bill removing the term ‘‘mental retardation’’ from Mental Retardation and Development Disability agencies around the state.

Many of the stalled proposals will not earn the easy bipartisan approval that Farley’s did, and will be forever bottled up because lawmakers of opposing parties now run the two legislative chambers.

A foreclosure moratorium the Democratic House passed last week, for example, is likely to face opposition in the Republican Senate. And the Republican-backed bill petitioning the U.S. Congress, where Democrats reign, is unlikely to get the nod of the Democrat-led Ohio House.

If history is any indication, though, some of the bills will be held back to be used as bargaining chips when budget negotiations hit crunch time. Sometimes the House speaker or Senate president promise passage of a caucus member’s priority bill in exchange for support on a tough budget.

Even more likely is that the House and Senate will signal their willingness to bend on certain budget provisions in exchange for the other chamber’s support on a key bill here and there. As the most significant policy document of any legislative session, the budget is the one around which political deals are structured.

For Farley, that means a waiting game.

‘‘This is a time-sensitive bill,’’ he said. ‘‘Every month that we’re not collecting is at least 800 units of blood we’re not collecting. Every year, it’s going to be 10,000. We’re talking real possibilities here. Every 800 units can potentially impact up to three lives.’’

Julie Carr Smyth is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press’ Columbus bureau.