For the first time in four years, the Ohio Senate will have a new president. And he and the incumbent Minority Leader come out of this lame duck session with a lot of work ahead of them when they return in January. They recently sat down for an exclusive interview.
Incoming president Larry Obhof (R-Medina) has been in the Senate since 2011, and he takes over with some challenges ahead. One of the first things that lawmakers will have to face is an issue that was only partly solved in the lame duck session – how to make sure there’s enough money in the fund that pays benefits to unemployed workers. A major overhaul was scrapped after an analysis showed it would cut $3.5 billion in worker benefits while increasing employer taxes just over $700 million. Obhof said that’ll be on the agenda in the first four months. “We are going to have to have some combination of revenue enhancements from business, perhaps from labor – but also some way of dealing with the amount that’s being expended.”
Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni (D-Boardman) has been in that role for two years. He said he’s glad lawmakers passed a stopgap measure on the unemployment compensation fund, but he’s ready to talk about a long term solution. “It has to be 50-50. It has to be fair. It has to be a good, solid negotiation between labor and the business community,” Schiavoni said.
The two leaders disagree on several issues that came up in lame duck. Obhof said his caucus showed it’s committed to passing pro-life legislation when the Senate put the so-called “Heartbeat Bill” abortion ban into a child abuse measure. But Schiavoni said he was disappointed that after an election that was all about the economy, abortion came up right away. On the bill extending the freeze on the state’s renewable energy requirements on utilities, Obhof said lawmakers need more discussion to commit to a state mandate or a set of goals. Schiavoni said he’s worried continuing the freeze will send businesses somewhere besides Ohio. And on the economy, Obhof said he’s not convinced Ohio is on the verge of a recession, as Gov. John Kasich has said. But he said lower tax revenue coming in will mean a tough budget. “I don’t think it’s a great sign for what some people might want to do in the next budget if people planned on spending a lot of extra money or growing the size of government. Frankly, whether we were bringing in the money or not, I wouldn’t be in support of that.”
Obhof disagrees with Schiavoni’s point of view, that there’s been too much tax shifting onto local communities and too many tax cuts, and that’s causing an economic problem. “We can’t tax cut our way out of it. We’ve been going after these monster tax cuts every year. The Senate passes $1.7 billion last biennium, and it’s not working,” Schiavoni said. “Giving people at the top all the money back and giving middle class people a few bucks back is not fixing the economy.”
When lawmakers come back, there will one more Republican in the Senate – a total of 24 Republicans to nine Democrats. But Obhof said his caucus can’t automatically do what it wants – they’ll still have to work together. “We don’t like to pass things 17-16, generally speaking,” Obhof said. “So a few extra members or an extra member next year on the ground probably doesn’t change much, but I feel good about the position we’re in in terms of being able to put our agenda forward.”
Schiavoni’s Democrats will be in something of a superminority, but he said he’s used to it. And he said he’s built a good relationship with Obhof, and hopes to get some bills passed. “At least I know that if we’re not going to be able to, I’ll get a straight answer, and that’s always something that I appreciate.” Does that mean Schiavoni doesn’t feel like he got a straight answer from outgoing President Keith Faber (R-Celina), or that his members were not listened to by Faber? “Yes. It was difficult sometimes,” Schiavoni said.
Senate President Keith Faber was term limited and will be taking a seat in the House at the start of the next General Assembly.