Thursday, November 16, 2000

Lawmakers pushing bills through

Assembly acts on juveniles, big farms

The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — Pushing hard on legislation before year's end, Ohio lawmakers on Tuesday approved bills that would jail children as young as 10 and change how the state regulates large livestock operations.

        Lawmakers also moved quickly to address a projected $647 million estimated shortfall in Medicaid spending.

        State legislators have until December to pass bills before a new class of legislators arrives in Columbus.

        House lawmakers approved a bill transferring authority over Ohio's 125 megafarms from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to the state Agriculture Department. The change applies to farms with at least 1,000 beef cattle, 2,500 hogs or 100,000 chickens.

        Proponents say the EPA lacks the ability to properly regulate the farms, leading to pollution problems, and has created a maze of red tape that is hurting Ohio agriculture.

        Opponents believe the bill weakens citizens' abilities to fight megafarms and that Agriculture Department officials work too closely with farmers to vigorously enforce the law.

        Rep. Jim Buchy, a Greenville Republican who sponsored the megafarm bill in the House, said it will protect the environment and allow hog, beef and chicken farms to thrive.

        Before approving the bill, the Republican-controlled House defeated an attempt to remove a requirement that citizens negotiate with megafarms before suing them over complaints.

        Susan Studer King of the Ohio Environmental Council criticized that provision, saying she believes it is an unconstitutional attempt to weaken individuals' rights in fighting megafarms.

        Frederick Shimp, an Agriculture Department lobbyist, pledged that his department will begin inspecting farms at least twice a year, in addition to spot checks and responses to complaints.

        Meanwhile, the Senate approved House changes to a juvenile justice bill it passed in March despite repeated attempts by Senate Democrats to postpone a vote.

        Opponents continued to voice their concerns about jailing children as young as 10. They've raised similar concerns since late 1999, when the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission released the results of a two-year study of the juvenile justice system.

        Currently, a child must be at least 12 to be sentenced to state juvenile detention. The proposed bill would lower the age to 10.

        “This sends a strong message about how we treat our children in this state — that we lock them up instead of getting them help,” said Sen. Ben Espy, a Columbus Democrat.

        Mr. Espy and other Senate Democrats also argued that the legislation will adversely affect black youngsters, who are already overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.

        The bill goes now to Gov. Bob Taft, who plans to sign it, spokesman Kevin Kellems said. The changes are estimated to cost counties about $3.6 million annually.

        Also Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee heard testimony from Thomas Johnson, Taft's budget director, on the projected $647 million Medicaid shortfall.

        Of that, the state is responsible for making up about $250 million. A bill headed to the full Senate Thursday would make up the difference from state revenue and spending cuts.


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