Just after he won office in 2012, freshman Ohio Rep. Wes Retherford was scratching his head.
A Marine, the Hamilton Republican knew thousands of U.S. military and reservists were returning home to Ohio from service each year.
While many of those who had medical jobs in the military could transfer that education and those licenses directly into jobs here, veterans who had other military training — licensed electricians, plumbers and tractor-trailer drivers, for example — were not so lucky.
“My question was: Why did (government) stop at just that?” Retherford said. “Military members can have tens of thousands of dollars of training at government expense. I decided, well, we need to fix this.”
In March 2013, Retherford introduced House Bill 98, which required each of Ohio’s occupational licensing agencies to apply a veteran’s military training and experience toward state licenses.
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By November 2013, the measure was law.
In fact, Retherford was pretty busy during his first term representing the Ohio House’s 51st District, which includes the manufacturing hub Hamilton, as well as Fairfield, Ross and Hanover townships.
The 30-year-old legislator sponsored 11 bills — three of them now law — and co-sponsored more than 100 more.
Retherford seeks a second term in the November ballot, running against the untested Democrat Lucinda Greene.
Of the streamlined veterans’ occupational licensing law, which went into effect in July, Retherford said, “It makes common sense.”
It’s a phrase he uses often. But he’s on to something.
By the year 2020, Ohio will need 14.3 percent more electricians (or 23,260 total), 17.7 percent more plumbers (13,160) and 17.1 percent more tractor-trailer drivers (77,460), according to the Ohio Occupational Employment Projections Report.
This region has a strong contingent of electricians, and a number of military veterans have entered the IBEW Local 648 union as apprentices, according to Jeff McGuffey, the union’s business manager. None that he knows of has tested into the journeyman level yet.
But some Local 648 members now work in North Dakota, Illinois and even drive to Lima, Ohio, because of electrician shortages there, McGuffey said.
“It’s just a matter of time that we find the same here,” said McGuffey, who did not know about the new Ohio law.
The legislation Retherford has been involved with spans the gamut.
Measures targeting illegal immigrants. Extending the deadline for a corporation franchise tax credit used in rehabbing historic buildings. Notifying a long-term care facility if a convicted sex offender will live nearby. Expanding the offense of corrupting others with drugs to those who sell them to pregnant women.
Why such a diverse range of issues?
“I didn’t want to be labeled in a single policy area or as a single policy legislator,” said Retherford, who has worked with Democrats on some issues. “My district is pretty diverse and I wanted to be involved in (issues that touch all of them).”
One initiative Retherford has worked on stemmed from conversations he had with Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser about the growing number of elder abuse cases Gmoser’s office had been prosecuting.
An older man beaten up on steps of a Masonic Lodge. An elderly woman whose church friend ripped her off for $330,000. A situation right out of the 2013 film “Nebraska” in which a senior citizen called Gmoser to say he’d won the lottery, but was curious why he had to go to the bank to get $5,000 for cab fare for the person who had just notified him he was a winner.
“He was being ripped off,” recalled Gmoser. “I thought, geez, it was so easy to mislead these people.”
The prosecutor subsequently formed the Butler County Crimes Against the Elderly Task Force to raise awareness and tackle elder abuse through criminal charges, rather than civil ones.
Retherford said he was inspired by that: “I wanted to extend that to the state level.”
So he sponsored House Bill 49, which passed the House and now is being considered in the Ohio Senate.
It would create a registry for reporting senior citizen abuse similar to what is now in place for children. It also mandates a state elder abuse commission and expands required reporting of elder abuse to more types of people, including emergency responders, social service workers and adult protection workers making home calls.
“I have a great love and respect for our elders,” Retherford said. “They are our teachers. They bust their butts their entire life … We should protect them.”
Gmoser, who testified on behalf of the bill last year, is thrilled.
“To me, it’s the educational aspect of (the bill) that is important,” he said. “Paying attention to a specific type of people … I applaud the fact that (Retherford) is doing it.”
If re-elected, Retherford speaks of taking steps to cut taxes for middle-class families, paring government spending and stimulating job growth.
While thousands of jobs have been added in Ohio this year, overall, the labor force statewide has shrunk by more than 200,000 workers from its peak of 5.97 million people in December 2006, according to the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a nonpartisan think tank.
In July, the Buckeye Institute noted that less than 64 percent of Ohioans were part of the labor force — the lowest since 1978. The state continues to lag the private-sector growth rates of most other states.
Retherford sees that as a challenge.
“We can continue pushing business-friendly tax reforms,” he said, adding that he’s heartened by the way universities are now reaching out to Ohio businesses to match degree programs with job needs.
Gmoser sees Retherford as someone grounded in Butler County back generations.
“He has good, country solid values,” said Gmoser. “He’s a good person. He’s got a good heart.”