Monday, September 06, 1999

Ohio prepares for new lawmakers

Term limits to cause turnover

Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS— Legislative leaders didn't even have time to show Rep. Greg Jolivette the way to the Statehouse bathrooms after he filled a vacancy two years ago.

        The Hamilton Republican took office as the General Assembly was embroiled in a heated debate about the way Ohio pays for public schools. Like a high school freshman, he had to embark on his own crash course on the complex system and the lingo veteran legislators repeatedly used to describe it.

        “I tried to sit, listen and learn; but there isn't much time to do that anymore,” said Mr. Jolivette, who has since been elevated to a key post on the House tax-writing committee. “You have to be able to hit the ground running.”

        With term limits promising to radically change the makeup of the General Assembly after the 2000 elections, legislative leaders want to give newcomers a boost of knowledge about making laws that dictate such things as the taxes Ohioans pay and oversight of public schools.

        Forty-one seats in the 99- member House and six in the 33-member Senate are up for grabs next year because of term limits. Several veterans already have begun the exodus by securing paid appointments from the governor or by taking private sector jobs.

        For the newcomers, legislative staffers are in the early stages of planning a weeklong, post-election retreat, at the behest of Senate President Richard Finan and House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, that would expand upon the tradi tional two-day litany of perks and pitfalls.

        Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the state's chief elections official, floated a similar idea during his campaign last fall. But in the battle for the hearts and minds of new legislators, Mr. Blackwell and the legislative leaders have competing views about how the indoctrination sessions should work.

        “I think we should stay away from the insiders and diversify the "faculty' as much as possible,” Mr. Blackwell, a Cincinnati Republican, said in an interview last week. “We should do all we can to help new lawmakers avoid an unhealthy dependence on unelected institutional staff or special interest lobbyists.”

        Mr. Finan, R-Evendale, agrees the sessions should be off-limits to lobbyists. But he wants the event planned by the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission, with assistance from think tanks at some of Ohio's state universities.

        The newly created John Glenn Institute for Public Policy at Ohio State University already has asked Mr. Finan for a piece of the action. So have think tanks at Ohio University, the University of Akron and Cleveland State University.

        Herb Asher, interim director of the Glenn Institute, said he is preparing a proposal that would combine the resources of all four universities.

        “Our purpose here isn't philosophical, it's educational,” Mr. Finan said. “The speaker and I want to leave this institution in good shape when we leave.”

        Many details need to be worked out. Questions remaining include where to put on the event (Mr. Finan suggested a state lodge, capped off with a Statehouse reception), how much it would cost and whether new lawmakers should be paid to come.

        It's unlikely that even a weeklong seminar will alter the symbiotic relationship between legislators and lobbyists, who work closely together on drafting bills and financing campaigns.

        Recent sessions for new legislators turned into a “free-for-all” of dinners and cocktail receptions thrown by government agencies and lobbyists, Ms. Davidson said. The Ohio Board of Regents, for instance, invited newcomers to a dinner the night before the last orientation took place.

        “Lobbyists are out there interviewing candidates right now,” said Ms. Davidson, R-Reynoldsburg. “We'll never be able to get away from that. But at least we can give the new members a solid start on the process and the content of what we do.”

        Still, it may take time for members of the Class of 2000 to learn the legislative process often is far different than the patriotic description in civics textbooks. And some probably will forget where the bathrooms are.

        “People are going to barely know each other,” said Sen. Mark Mallory, a Cincinnati Democrat whose father, William Mallory Sr., was a longtime state legislator. “They're going to need to know the unwritten rules, like when you tell somebody you're going to vote for their bill and then fail to do so on the floor.”

        With backing from the two legislative leaders, new lawmakers will get something Mr. Jolivette didn't when he took office. Organizers of the orientation should be figured out by next summer.

        “A good idea has a thousand fathers and mothers,” said Mr. Blackwell. “I'm not into building a legacy. My whole thing is getting it done.”


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