132nd General Assembly exits Statehouse with good results for ONMA
By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director
The end of the 132nd General Assembly brought mainly good news for ONMA members for three reasons. First, we helped pass good bills or made progress on several of our legislative priorities. Second, several bills that concerned us were made far better because of our efforts.
The third reason is that nothing really bad happened in either of our two focus areas – open government and legislation that affects us as businesses. That’s the nature of lobbying – you spend a lot of time trying to keep bad stuff from happening, and by and large we were able to do that.
By session’s end, we had followed nearly 60 different bills with active lobbying on many of them. Here’s a summary of the most important things that happened.
Bills that became law (or will pending Kasich’s signature)
Body cameras: Probably no bill will impact our newsrooms more than House Bill 425. We identified the likelihood of legislation affecting public records and police-worn body cameras more than two years ago. We decided to be proactive in talking about the issue as we watched other states pass laws with severe restrictions, including release only at the discretion of the local sheriff or chief.
The new Ohio law retains the presumption of openness that must attach to public records. New restrictions deal with obvious privacy issues such as dead bodies, acts of severe violence and interiors of private residences. Other portions of such video can be released. Video that captures uses of force by police officers will be open. There’s also an appeals process for the first time in Ohio that allows a petition to court that public interest outweighs privacy concerns, which could be important in exceptional circumstances. The low-cost, expedited appeals process for record denials in the Ohio Court of Claim also applies. We opposed the inclusion of dash cameras into the bill but lost on that front.
We’ll need feedback from members on how well it’s working if Gov. Kasich signs it as we expect.
Mug-shot profiteering: Under HB 6, you can’t charge people for removal of a public record. This bill was aimed at websites that profiteer by charging people who have been arrested for removal of their booking photographs. We worked with the sponsor to ensure this didn’t affect journalists’ ability to access and publish these photos.
School-bus accidents: We opposed HB 8 for nearly two years, which blocks the release of identifying information of children in school-bus accidents. When the bill got to the Ohio Senate, we were able to negotiate an exception that allows journalists to view this information.
Loophole closed: The Ohio Supreme Court had blocked winners in public records cases from seeking fees because of an outmoded provision that said fees only could be sought if the request for records was made in person or by certified mail. Digital requests now apply. Auditor Dave Yost, the new attorney general, was a big help in achieving this – one of our 2018 priorities.
Records can’t be secret forever: It looked like HB 139 was going to be caught in the end-of-December logjam. I’m proud that ONMA was able to help a coalition of historians, archivists, librarians, adoptees and others end the practice of some records being kept secret in perpetuity – for example, county hospital records. Other than a few, logical exceptions, no records will be secret in Ohio for more than 75 years now. This will help reporters doing historical research. We also got a really bad provision removed from the bill that would have added a new loophole to the public records law. The bill awaits Gov. Kasich’s signature.
Graphic photos: We strongly opposed HB 451, which exempts graphic depictions of crime victims from the public records law. We felt the bill was unneeded and existing court rulings and privacy laws covered the issue. We were able to get a clarifying amendment to ensure it didn’t apply to text descriptions. This bill also awaits Kasich’s signature.
What didn’t pass that mattered most to us
Ohio Citizen Participation Act: Sen. Matt Huffman introduced a bill proposed by an ONMA-led coalition that has been hailed as a model “anti-SLAPP” law for the nation. These laws create expedited court procedures to dispose of lawsuits filed with the intent to block exercise of your First Amendment rights. Sen. Huffman plans to re-introduce the bill this year. We were pleased to get the conversation started.
Public notices: We were very concerned about HB 458, not only because it gave governmental bodies the option to only put the second delinquent tax list on their own websites but also for the precedent it would set. Don’t be surprised to see a fresh version of this bill next year or, for that matter, other efforts to move notices out of newspapers. We are using this as an opportunity to educate legislators on the importance of public notices. You should, too. Most important is this: Make sure you offer fair rates and outstanding customer service to your notice advertisers.
Business taxes: HB 569 would have cleaned up some issues involving how the state interprets sales tax on certain digital services. Clarifying that state regulations cannot be used to tax digital advertising would be helpful and we have told a sponsor, Rep. Scott Lipps, that we support the return of his bill.
Ohio Checkbook: HB 40 would have required future state treasurers to continue the online website to track government spending, www.ohiocheckbook.com, started by outgoing treasurer Josh Mandel. Keith Faber, the new treasurer, plans to continue the site. In a perfect world, state officials would get past parochial battles and merge the site with the also-good spending site run by the governor’s budget office.
Data Ohio: For years, Rep. Mike Duffey, who is term-limited out of the Legislature now, tried to bring Ohio government into the 21st Century with a comprehensive effort to reform how the state handles and presents data. HB 3 didn’t make it to the finish line. Many aspects of this bill would’ve helped journalists covering Ohio government do their jobs faster and better.
Campaign finance: Now that he’s secretary of state, hopefully former Sen. Frank LaRose will keep pushing his efforts to make government more transparent. His Senate Bill 44 would have allowed local campaign committees to file finance statements online. That’s a no-brainer. It should be mandatory.
Sealing and expunging: Legislatures around the country, including Ohio, are considering many well-intentioned “second-chance” bills to help those accused or convicted of crimes to get on with their lives. The problem is that this often involves sealing or, worse, expungement of records. Expungement means all evidence is destroyed, and we’ve argued – generally with success -- that this should be extremely rare. Otherwise, government also is destroying the evidence of what it did and, sometimes, how it screwed up. Expect more of these bills in the future.
Our priorities for the 133rd General Assembly
We’re getting ready to talk to legislators about our 2019-2020 priorities. These are our top four. You can read our entire, five-page priorities document by clicking here.
- Support the Ohio Citizen Participation Act. See item above.
- Improve Ohio’s open meetings law. We are proposing three reforms. Make open meetings legal disputes part of the Court of Claims appeals process. Make “information-gathering” and “fact-finding” sessions open to the public. Require some type of record, video or written, of executive session deliberations.
- Update the definition of public record. Something can’t be an open record if it isn’t a public record. Our confusing, outdated definition needs updating.
- Keep public notices in newspapers where they belong. We also remind lawmakers that, at no charge to notice advertisers, Ohio’s newspapers are uploading more than 150,000 notices per year to their websites and to the statewide site run by the ONMA, PublicNoticesOhio.com. Imagine thousands of local governmental bodies trying to do this online and the tiny reach that would result.
As I see what goes on around the country, I think the results of the past two years speak well for the efforts of our government relations team. That team isn’t just our partners at the government relations firm Capitol Consulting with me. It includes you. Supportive editorials helped us with several bills. And a number of our publishers stepped up this fall when it appeared that House Bill 458 might get new life.
As always, we welcome your feedback. I’m sure the next two years will have surprises. Please stay alert. Talk to your legislators. Let us know anytime you hear something we might need to know.