Ohio legislators debate gun laws, education, sex offenders in lame-duck session

State legislators kicked off their five-week lame-duck session with a full day of hearings, though those bills coming up for the first time Tuesday face an uphill battle to get through both chambers before the session ends. Any bills not making the grade would have to be re-filed for consideration by the 135th General Assembly, which convenes in January.

Bills discussed Tuesday included the following:

Gun laws

State Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, recently announced he wants to resurrect some of the “Strong Ohio” proposals against gun violence that stalled in the legislature in 2019. His Senate Bill 357 came up for a first hearing Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee — but he presented a substitute bill further altering the earlier proposals.

“Everything in this sub bill is about before you buy a gun,” said Dolan, who chairs the finance committee.

During months of campaigning for the Nov. 8 election, legislators heard people statewide asking what they’d do to prevent gun violence, he said.

From speaking with healthcare personnel, law enforcement and others, it became clear the state’s current involuntary commitment program is not sufficient to identify all the at-risk people who shouldn’t be able to buy guns, Dolan said.

His substitute bill adds a sixth “disability” to state laws preventing people from buying guns. Existing ones prohibit fugitives from justice, felons, those who committed juvenile crimes that would be adult felonies, drug addicts and alcoholics, and those with established dangerous mental problems from buying guns, he said.

Dolan’s bill adds people who go before a behavioral risk assessment team and have been determined to be a “suicidal or homicidal risk.”

Ohio law already prohibits people under age 21 from buying handguns, he said. His bill would add that under-21 buyers of other guns would need a cosigner age 25 or older. There are exceptions for anyone under 21 in law enforcement or the military, Dolan said.

Dolan said police told him a crackdown on “straw purchases” — someone buying a gun on behalf of another person who’s prohibited from doing so — would be a big help.

“My bill would take it from a fourth-degree felony to a second-degree felony,” with a minimum two-year jail term, he said.

Police also said some people on public assistance are prominent among straw purchasers, making cash on the side in exchange for aiding in illegal gun buys, Dolan testified. His bill adds a box to gun-purchase paperwork to ask if buyers are on public assistance, meaning they’d risk losing benefits if caught in a straw purchase, he said.

Under Dolan’s bill, sellers in private gun sales — those outside federally licensed firearm stores — can protect themselves from liability by asking buyers to get a $10 certificate from their local sheriff affirming the purchaser is able to buy a gun.

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It takes too long for protective orders to show up on background checks, Dolan said, so his bill requires that those orders be entered within a day after their issue.

Finally, the bill would appropriate $175 million in federal funds: $85 million for train and hire more mental healthcare workers, and $90 million to build a statewide network of regional healthcare crisis centers statewide, helping to keep people who need treatment out of local jails.

Education reform

State Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, wants to overhaul the system administering primary and secondary education in Ohio, restructuring it as the cabinet-level “Department of Education and Workforce.”

That would be split into two divisions, one overseeing primary and secondary education and the other handling “career tech” programs, he told the Ohio Senate Primary & Secondary Education Committee on Tuesday.

Reineke’s Senate Bill 178 got its first committee hearing Tuesday. He filed it as a placeholder expressing intent to “reform the functions and responsibilities of the State Board of Education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Department of Education,” planning to put details in a substitute bill.

“We do not have the substitute bill ready today but we are going to have the sponsor give a summary of what’s in the sub Senate Bill 178,” said state Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, the committee chair.

Reineke said his eventual sub bill would make major changes to responsibilities of the Ohio State Board of Education, which he said is failing, needs “systemic change” and lacks accountability.

Schools don’t promote vocational and technical career paths as strongly as they promote going to college, and he wants to see that balanced, he said.

Reineke also said he was “shocked” to learn the rates at which Ohio students need remedial classes in college, and that the state’s students are falling behind national reading and math standards.

The bill wouldn’t change the board’s membership structure, and the board would continue to appoint the superintendent of public instruction, Reineke said. The board would enforce rules on teacher licensure, review of staff conduct and school territory transfers he said; but all other duties would be assigned to the new Department of Education and Workforce.

Brenner said he intends to hold several hearings on Reineke’s bill, including a potential committee vote, during the lame-duck session.

Sex offenders

A bill to modify the state’s law on people charged civilly, but not criminally, with child sexual abuse had its first hearing Tuesday in the House Criminal Justice Committee.

House Bill 689 would double the statute of limitations, from two years to four, for prosecuting a mandatory reporter who failed to report child abuse, said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati. That is the longest period for any misdemeanor offense, he said.

For cases in which the statute of limitations for prosecuting sex offenders has expired, legislation in 2006 established a civil-judgment process that allowed accused offenders to be put on a civil sex offender registry at any time, separate from the registry for those who were criminally convicted, Seitz said.

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That law established a criminal penalty for not complying with the registry, but courts said a criminal penalty couldn’t be attached to a civil offense, he said. So HB 689 makes noncompliance with registering a civil violation, punishable by a fine up to $2,500.

“It doesn’t change the criminal penalties on child sexual abuse at all,” Seitz said.

Likewise, the bill repeals the earlier law’s criminal prohibition for a person on the civil registry to live within 1,000 feet of a school; but it allows civil actions against a person who does so, according to a bill analysis by the state Legislative Service Commission.

The bill also allows victims to bring legal action to put someone on the civil registry in cases where a prosecutor declines to file criminal charges, Seitz said.

Distracted driving

A bill to change Ohio’s distracted-driving law passed the House Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday, headed for a vote on the House floor.

House Bill 283, sponsored by state Reps. Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, and Brian Lampton, R-Beavercreek, would allow police to stop and ticket drivers solely for using mobile phones on the road.

The bill would prohibit drivers from “holding or physically supporting an electronic wireless communications device with any part of the body, with certain exceptions,” according to a news release from the bill’s sponsors.

It was amended in committee by Seitz to say that it’s not a violation for a driver to hold a cell phone to their ear — only to be looking at it while driving. That would supersede current law, he said. Seitz also amended the bill to say that people could still use their phones while stopped at a traffic signal.

Forty-four states have distracted driving laws, and Abrams noted that traffic deaths declined in those states within two years of the laws’ passage.

In Ohio there were more than 91,000 distracted-driving crashes from 2013 through 2019, causing more than 47,000 injuries and 305 deaths, the news release said.

Vehicle seizure

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Thomas Patton, R-Strongsville, says if a driver fails to comply with an order or signal of a police officer, police can seize their vehicle. It had a first hearing Tuesday as House Bill 626, in the House Criminal Justice Committee.

Patton said police in Parma saw a big increase in failure to comply with officers’ orders in the last few years, sometimes resulting in police chases that resulted in injury or death, but violators of that specific charge typically got probation. The possibility of having their vehicles seized would be a deterrent, he said.

A different bill sponsored by Rep. Kevin Miller, R-Newark, which has had one committee hearing, says much the same — but also that the offender’s drivers license would be suspended. Patton’s bill leaves that out, just taking the vehicle.

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