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July 31, 2009

 

Speaker vows September vote on equality bill

Columbus--If there’s any pressure to delay the Equal Housing and Employment Act, House Speaker Armond Budish of Beachwood says it won’t stop him from bringing it to a vote in September.

Budish said the bill will be among the first the House takes up when it reconvenes in September.

“I believe this bill is important,” Budish said, “and we have moved it quickly.”

The measure, also known as EHEA or H.R. 176, prohibits discrimination by sexual orientation or gender identity in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations. Twenty-one states have similar measures.

EHEA passed the State Government Committee on June 17 and was headed for the House floor, but extended debate over the state budget filled lawmakers’ time before the summer recess.

Budish denied reports that there has been pressure from Democratic lawmakers to delay the vote. He also quieted concerns that Democratic strategists in Ohio and Washington, D.C. are concerned that a vote on the bill could weaken Democrats’ hold on seats in conservative districts.

There is also concern that in the current economic climate, Democrats could lose the governor’s office next year, and may have a hard time keeping the secretary of state’s seat being vacated by Jennifer Brunner, who is running for U.S. Senate.

At stake is the composition of the apportionment board, which will draw new legislative districts after the 2010 census. Those districts go a long way to determine who is elected to represent Ohio for the next decade.

Democrats now control two of the three statewide seats on the board--the governor and secretary of state--along with Republican auditor Mary Taylor. Losing either seat would return the board to the GOP, which has drawn the districts for the past 20 years.

With Governor Ted Strickland’s approval ratings dropping due to the overall economic climate, Democrats are increasingly concerned about losing the secretary of state office.

According to a Democratic strategist who spoke to the Chronicle under condition of anonymity, Rep. Jennifer Garrison of Marietta was asked to get into the secretary of state race because the other Democratic candidate, Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown, is believed to be weak.

Brown was recruited by Brunner.

Garrison’s relationship with the LGBT community has been rocky. Though she is a committed yes vote for EHEA, she would rather the vote be delayed until after the 2010 election, so her vote on it--either way--can’t be used against her.

Budish said, “There’s pressure on every bill, but no one has said we can’t pass it due to fear of losing the apportionment board.”

There is, however, another twist the bill is likely to take when it comes up in September.

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce is going to try to amend it again, according to Equality Ohio Director Lynne Bowman and the bill’s Republican co-sponsor, Ross McGregor of Springfield.

Earlier, Chamber lobbyist Tony Fiore said his group has been interested in the bill since 2006, but that interest heightened this year when it became clear that the bill will pass the House and has a chance to pass the Senate.

Fiore testified as an interested party on the bill during a June 10 committee hearing.

The Chamber says that they “do not support workplace harassment or discrimination,” and that they are “committed to encouraging fair and consistent employment practices and policies in hiring, training and compensation.”

However, their interest in EHEA appears to lie more in Fiore’s belief that the bill can be used to pass the Chamber’s broader agenda, than a concern for LGBT workers.

Fiore initially proposed seven amendments, including caps on damages paid to employees that are discriminated against, limits on access to Common Pleas Court and a weakened right to sue, and a general weakening of Ohio’s administrative process that precedes court actions.

Fiore testified that in order to get the Chamber’s support for EHEA, all of these provisions would need to be accepted.

Three of Fiore’s changes were included in the final bill before it passed the House State Government Committee.

A deal was struck earlier that the bill would contain Chamber amendments that don’t seem to threaten the measure’s narrow intent, in exchange for the group’s neutral position.

A “neutral” position means the Chamber will neither support nor oppose the measure, nor will votes for or against it appear on their scorecard.

The rest will again come up when the bill hits the House floor, and members’ votes on that amendment package will be scored by the Chamber.

McGregor believes the amendment will be offered by either Republican Rep. David Daniels of Greenfield, who is the ranking minority member of the House State Government Committee or Gerald Stebelton of Lancaster, who is also on the committee. Both offered amendments in committee, then voted against the bill anyway.

Asked about this plan, Budish was unaware of it.

McGregor said he does not support the entire package of amendments, either, but would welcome “some common sense changes to the bill to help businesses adapt.”

As an example, McGregor cited one proposed amendment that require someone with a complaint to exhaust all administrative avenues before going to court.

McGregor agreed that it would be helpful to pass the bill and send it to the Senate as soon as possible, and he is taking Budish at his word that it will get a vote in September.

McGregor said the Chamber has been “very engaged” in the bill.

“It has as good a shot as ever at passing both chambers,” McGregor said, adding that some negotiation around the Chamber amendments will help him in two ways.

The first, he said, is to get as many Republicans as possible to vote for the bill in the House.

“If that goes okay, we should get 12 to 20 Republican votes,” McGregor said. “That will put pressure on the Senate.”

The Senate is controlled by Republicans, and McGregor said he expects to “do more heavy lifting” once the bill gets there.

“That would make the bill a truly bipartisan bill and send the message to the Senate that we want it to pass and that the House has done its part,” McGregor said.

Bowman said if the Chamber doesn’t get all it wants in the House, it will likely try again once it gets to the Senate.

Bowman said much of what the Chamber wants has not been passed over the last ten years when Republicans controlled both chambers and the governor’s office, so she doesn’t see any danger that what they are doing could poison the bill.

“But it’s opportunism,” Bowman said.

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