Thursday, March 27, 2003

Ohio Senate: Bipartisan lovefest?

Anybody who's followed the Ohio General Assembly in recent years would have been stunned by Tuesday's Senate session. Senators stood up to praise, thank and even flatter their opposite-party colleagues, turning the vote over the transportation funding bill into a bipartisan lovefest.

"The minority party worked very hard and very well with us. This truly is a bipartisan bill," said Senate President Doug White, R-Manchester. "I thank the president and the other side for the positive discussions we have entered into," Sen. Leigh Herrington, D-Ravenna, said. "I do appreciate (White's) honesty and straightforward approach," Minority Leader Greg DiDonato, D-New Philadelphia, said. Group hug, anybody?

This trend bodes well for a legislative body in which rancor has been the rule, especially if it continues into negotiations over the state's biennial operating budget this spring. Senate and House Democrats, entrenched in the minority for the past decade, have complained about being shut out of the legislative process. During last year's deficit crisis, they weren't even invited to the table to negotiate or offer ideas. Their recourse has been to vote as a bloc against anything the GOP offers. But White, who took over the Senate in January, has brought a reputation for fair-mindedness and collegiality that may pay off.

We welcome this development. We've often argued that the one-sided debate in Ohio government does nobody any good. While voters have endorsed a Republican approach by electing GOP lawmakers to strong majorities, Democrats and their constituents have the right to be heard and to influence the process.

This isn't just feel-good sentiment. It can produce better law. Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, won amendments to exempt school districts from a six-cent gas tax increase and to waive part of the hike if more federal money comes in. Result: A centrist coalition passed the bill, 20-12.

"We learned something here," DiDonato said. "By simply putting us in communication, by simply allowing us to come to the table and being inclusive ... the end result is you get support." Imagine that.

Let's hope the House, a hotbed of flamethrower rhetoric and non-cooperation, gets the message. With a tough budget, huge deficit and needed reforms ahead, Ohio cannot afford a legislature that ignores and disenfranchises its own members.

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