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February 26, 2010

Longtime friend takes up equality bill in Ohio Senate

Columbus--A state senator with a long history of sponsoring LGBT equality legislation has stepped up to try to get the Equal Housing and Employment Act passed in the Ohio Senate.

The LGBT anti-discrimination bill passed the House 56 to 39 in September with every House Democrat and five Republicans voting yes. It was the first time any measure like it came to a vote in the Ohio General Assembly.

The act would bar discrimination by sexual orientation and gender identity in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations.

Twenty-one other states have similar laws with 14 of them including gender identity, as do similar local ordinances in all of Ohio�s largest cities.

Governor Ted Strickland supports the bill and would sign it into law.

The House bill is now in the Ohio Senate, which had no �companion� bill of its own. Controlled by Republicans, many of whom are conservative, the Senate has always been viewed as the tougher fight by the bill�s proponents.

Senate President Bill Harris of Ashland has made public statements suggesting he might want to give the act a chance to pass. But he assigned it to the Rules Committee, sometimes known as �the place where bills go to die.�

Harris chairs this committee, whose stated� purpose is to set an agenda for the bill, then send it to another panel for hearings.

Dale Miller, a Democrat who represents Cleveland�s west side and Lakewood, has stepped forward to try to move the bill.

Miller said the first thing on his agenda is to work with Minority Leader Capri Cafaro of Hubbard to persuade Harris to move it to a committee where it can have hearings.

Miller said a reasonable committee for it would be the Judiciary Civil Justice Committee, which is chaired by Republican Bill Seitz of Cincinnati. It has three Democrats, including Miller, and six Republicans.

One of the Republicans is David Goodman of Columbus, who sponsored the same measure in the last session.

Seitz, while in the House, sponsored Ohio�s �defense of marriage act� which passed in 2004.

Miller said the presence of Seitz and other conservatives on the panel made it �a challenging undertaking.�

�I�m not sure Seitz will support it, but if a majority on the committee does, he may allow it to pass.�

�I try not to speculate as to others� inner thoughts and motives,� Miller said of what he thinks it will take for Harris to reassign the bill.

Harris� office did not return calls in time for comment for this report.

Miller is not seeking re-election in 2010 in order to pursue a seat on the new Cuyahoga County Council. He said the Democratic leadership had serious discussions about whether Miller or Shirley Smith, also of the Cleveland area, should take the lead on EHEA in the Senate, in large part because Miller will not be returning.

�Smith wanted to defer to me,� Miller said, �because I have sponsored similar bills in three previous general assemblies.�

Miller introduced his first LGBT equality bill in the House seven years ago, and has sponsored them in both chambers in every session since.

��Smith is capable of taking the lead if we don�t get it passed this general assembly,� Miller added,

He is concerned with the opposition to the bill by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business unless it also contains provisions that would limit damages a discrimination victim could collect and weaken current Ohio non-discrimination laws on other biases.

House Democrats used a parliamentary move to block the Chamber�s amendment package from being added to EHEA on the floor last September.

�There are those who want to turn this into a tort reform bill,� Miller said, �and Democrats get nervous about that. We want to see that everyone has opportunities for full redress of grievances.�

That maneuver is known as a �poison pill,� and Miller�s concern is that similar amendments would create a bill that Democrats cannot vote for.

�The trouble is we cannot get this done without bi-partisan support,� Miller said.

The Senate is split 21 - 12 in favor of Republicans. Without the poison amendments, all Democrats are expected to vote for the measure, and it is believed that three Republicans would join them. The last two Republicans, however, might be difficult to find.

Miller said all the states are experiencing partisan gridlock like that in the U.S. Congress, and that Ohio is not the worst of the lot.

�Except for issues of extreme importance, getting bipartisanship on anything is difficult,� Miller said.

Miller added, however, that �outside of this bill per se, attitudes toward LGBT people of many legislative leaders is improving.�

Miller said he does not expect any movement of the bill until after the May primary election.

�But it could be passed during lame duck,� Miller concluded. That is the period between the November election and the close of the session before the new year.

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