Lawmakers Cut Proposal to Allow Secret Meetings
By Jim Provance
Blade Columbus Bureau [Ohio, Toledo Blade]
December 19, 2006
Columbus - A Senate committee yesterday stripped language from the state's capital budget bill that would have allowed a majority of House committee members to discuss legislation behind closed doors without violating the state's open meetings law.
The $1.8 billion wish list of borrowing-fueled bricks-and-mortar projects across the state is headed for a full Senate vote as soon as today with the authority for a hike in the Lucas County hotel tax still intact to pay for a new Toledo arena and expanded convention center.
Current law allows an entire caucus of one political party on a Senate or House committee to meet privately but is silent on whether a majority party on a committee can do the same. Earlier this year, several House Republicans were sued for allegedly discussing amendments behind doors just before voting to strip a bill of a provision allowing the filing of civil suits in decades-old child sexual abuse cases.
A Franklin County Common Pleas Court magistrate has recommended the dismissal of the suit, finding that the meeting took place but that plaintiffs failed to prove a committee majority participated in the discussions. A judge will hear arguments today as to whether to accept that recommendation.
Senate Republicans said they had no intention of following the House's lead, and House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) ultimately asked the Senate Finance Committee remove the language.
"They were in support of the action we took today," said Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), a committee member. "They didn't mean to create any new firestorm over caucuses."
Husted spokesman Karen Tabor said the speaker still believes a committee majority may caucus and said she believes such a meeting will occur again.
"This is a step in the right direction, but more importantly someone should be questioning why lawmakers are trying to rewrite the law when there is a challenge in court right now," said Claudia Vercellotti, Toledo coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and a plaintiff in the suit.
Despite testimony in opposition last week from the local hotel industry, a provision in the capital budget opening a one-year period for the Lucas County commissioners to raise the local lodging tax 2 percentage points to 10 percent survived.
The language would allow the county to put the issue to voters before enacting the higher tax or raise the tax on their own, risking the potential for a petition-driven repeal effort on the November, 2007, ballot.
"That debate is left for the local government officials and the community of Lucas County," Mr. Gardner said. "There are other options, but they have clearly been given new authority on top of the authority they already had to raise revenues. This simply gives the county commissioners another option."
Coupled with state and county sales taxes of 6.75 percent, the hike would mean Lucas would have bed taxes totaling 16.75 percent, which would be among the highest in the nation. Monclova Township, which adds a local 3 percent lodging tax to the mix, would have the highest at 19.75 percent.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.
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