Ohio’s legislative process shouldn’t be mysterious

Ohio’s legislative process shouldn’t be mysterious

It’s been 10 years since the Ohio General Assembly dealt a blow to open government by exempting the Ohio Legislative Service Commission from the state’s Open Records Law. Two converging events cause us to raise that decade-old legislative travesty today.

One is the marking of Sunshine Week, a national effort of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to stress the importance of open government and freedom of information. Laws that assure public access to government meetings and records are popularly called Sunshine Laws and journalists firmly believe that open government at every level is better government. Members of the public have a right to know what is going on in government. If they can’t go to meetings on their own, they should at least know that the meetings will be open to their surrogates, the press.

The second event is the recent revelation that although the Ohio General Assembly passed legislation designed to outlaw payday loans at usurious rates, and although that legislation survived a referendum vote by the people of Ohio, the payday lending industry is flourishing — collecting even higher interest rates. The General Assembly attempted to replace a top annual interest rate of 391 percent with a rate of 28 percent, but payday lenders found two loopholes that allow them to charge up 423 percent on a 14-day, $100 loan under Ohio’s Small Loan Act and up to 680 percent on that same loan under the Mortgage Loan Act.

Who knows what would be happening in 2009 if former State Senate President Richard Finan hadn’t managed to insert an LSC secrecy provision in the 1,600 page state budget bill in 1999?

Perhaps it would have still gone unnoticed that House Bill 545 0f 2008, which replaced the Check-Cashing Lender Law with the Short-Term Lender Law, was a toothless tiger.

Or perhaps, if the door had not been slammed shut on the Ohio Legislative Service Commission so tightly that even members of the Legislature are kept in the dark while a bill is being drafted, the weaknesses of H.B. 545 would have been recognized and corrected.

The commission’s job

The commission, as described on Ohio’s Web site, is a statutory agency created in 1953 to provide technical and research services to members of the General Assembly. It is responsible for bill drafting, bill analysis, research, training, and other technical services to the General Assembly. And before 1999 it did all that in an open manner. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the commission should have an obligation to research conflicts, such as those existing between the intent of H.B. 545 and the continued existence of the Small Loan and Mortgage Loan acts. And there was a day when any commission research into such a conflict would have been open to legislators, the public and the press.

Before a cloak of secrecy was drawn around the Legislative Service Commission, the people had a window into the important first drafts of legislation that had the potential to change their lives.

Today, any piece of legislation could contain any number of poison pills that the people of Ohio won’t recognize until they start feeling woozy.

Would Ohio have a better payday lending law today if the legislative process been more open? We can’t say that for a certainty. But we can allow for the possibility. And we can say that there almost nothing government does behind closed doors that couldn’t be done — and done better — in the open

It’s time for members of the General Assembly who believe in better government to undo the damage done to open government in 1999. Ironically, the legislators will have to start by trusting the Legislative Service Commission to draft a bill that will allow some sunshine back into what the commission does.

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