COLUMBUS — Speaker of the Ohio House Bill Batchelder hurried through the halls of the Statehouse with a handful of staff members Thursday afternoon, their footsteps echoing.
One of them handed him a script to read at the Ohio Youth in Government’s mock session, where 500 teenagers from throughout Ohio were portraying state representatives for the day.
“Can I tell them I’ve been here since 1968 — since before they were even a twinkle in their parents eye?” Batchelder, wearing his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, asked his staff before they ushered him into the House chambers.
The Medina Republican was first elected to the House as a 26-year-old “country lawyer,” as he once told The Gazette. He served 30 years before meeting his term limits. He went on to serve as a judge in Medina County Common Pleas Court and then for the 9th District Court of Appeals before being re-elected to the House in 2006.
“He’s been such an institution around here,” his spokesman Mike Dittoe said.
But this term is a bit different than the previous 17. One hundred days ago today, 68-year-old Batchelder was sworn in as speaker of the House — a title he has long aspired to hold.
Dittoe explained the new job has meant some big changes. While Batchelder was busy in the last term when he was minority leader of the House’s then-46 Republicans, Dittoe said the speaker’s schedule now is nearly airtight.
“It’s not just speaker or the leader of the caucus. He’s the speaker of the House. That’s 99 people,” Dittoe said. “That’s a very big jump.”
Batchelder was selected by the Republican caucus to lead the House at no ordinary time. He was elected to his current term as state representative in the same November elections that saw all major statewide offices up for grabs go to Republicans. The GOP took control of the Ohio House, adding 13 more Republicans to give the party a majority of 59.
All the while, legislators in Columbus knew they would have to face a looming $8 billion budget deficit and unemployment at some of its highest levels in decades.
Batchelder said he’s happy to take on the challenge. Sitting in his Statehouse office under a painting of Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory on Lake Erie, he grinned as he said this House passed almost 30 pieces of legislation in the first three months of the year. The previous session only passed four pieces of legislation by that point last year, he said.
He said although House committees generally meet three times a week, some — including the budgetary finance committee — are meeting five days a week this session.
“I am very, very hyper. I want to get these things done, and kicking the can down the road is not why I’m here. I’m here in order to do things,” he said.
However, not all the headway made by the House has been met with approval from Ohioans. Protesters were a common sight at the Statehouse in the last months while lawmakers debated Senate Bill 5, which will weaken the collective bargaining power of about 360,000 workers.
Unions say the new process will make negotiating a one-sided conversation where the public employers hold all the chips. Supporters of the measure contend the process will help managers at the state and local levels balance their budgets.
The measure affects safety workers, teachers, nurses and a host of other government personnel. It allows unions to negotiate wages and certain working conditions but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. It gets rid of automatic pay increases, and replaces them with merit raises or performance pay. Workers also will be banned from striking.
“They’re frustrated and unhappy. I don’t fault people if they’re frustrated,” Batchelder said.
However, he thinks Senate Bill 5 rolls back some of the policies contained in the 1983 law that was the last major reform of the state’s collective bargaining system.
“They adopted legislation in which … one side of the table — the employees’ side of the table — had more power than the other side of the table. That’s not what the National Labor Relations Act is about,” Batchelder said.
But he said Senate Bill 5 was not a perfect law when the House received it from the Senate.
“There were a lot of us that had misgivings about it,” he explained. The House made about 14 amendments to the bill, including giving safety workers the right to bargain over equipment.
Gov. John Kasich signed the bill March 31.
Now that it’s approved, Batchelder said the main focus will be an information campaign.
“We’ve got a lot to do to have people understand what the bill did. There’s a lot of misunderstanding,” he said.
In the meantime, groups are gathering signatures to get a referendum of Senate Bill 5 on the November ballot. Thousands rallied at the Statehouse on Saturday to raise awareness for the campaign.
Toting signs such as “The middle class will never forget what you did” and “Unions aren’t the problem,” members of the peaceful crowd hooted and hollered in support as speakers talked about restoring balance at the bargaining table.
But some lawmakers say a balanced state budget hinges on Senate Bill 5. Kasich’s $55.5 billion, two-year spending proposal for the state counts on savings from relaxed union rights at the state and local levels.
Batchelder called the budget situation and the $8 billion deficit “mind boggling.” The deficit accounts for about 18 percent of the total state budget. To make up for that, he said, serious cuts will have to be made. Any tax increases, he said, would only encourage companies to leave the state or to eliminate jobs.
“Nobody wants to cut anything. We have to get rid of certain programs. We have to make cuts in other programs. But it’s not something we’re wild about doing,” he said.
“We’re either going to do that or we’re going to say goodbye to more companies,” he later added.
Batchelder didn’t cite any specifics, and Dittoe added that specific cuts haven’t been outlined yet.
However, Dittoe said one area where the state could see some cost savings is in the state’s Medicaid program. He said several agencies, including the Department of Job and Family Services and the Department of Health, carry out some of the Medicaid programs, and some of those overlap. He said a consolidation of some of those could save up to $400 million without affecting any services.
While the legislature’s budget isn’t completed yet, the budget proposed by Kasich last month makes significant cuts to local governments and schools.
The Local Government Fund, which shares state sales tax money with Ohio’s townships, villages, cities and counties, will be cut by 25 percent this upcoming fiscal year and 50 percent the following year. A group of Medina County officials has organized to petition state legislators not to make such drastic cuts.
Schools see a decrease in funding of about $3.14 billion over the two-year budget, which includes an 11.5 percent cut next fiscal year and a 4.9 percent cut the following year. Some Medina County school leaders have said the governor’s proposed cuts aren’t quite as drastic as expected, while others say any cuts are a tough blow in this time of lean budgets.
“Overall the budget, it’s well done,” Batchelder said.
However, he has long fought for school funding. As early as 1975, he introduced legislation to earmark a portion of the state income tax, corporate franchise tax and all lottery profits for the exclusive distribution to local school districts. In his most recent bid for re-election, Batchelder insisted that schools be adequately funded, but he also said that school districts should be encouraged to cut administrative costs and ensure funding reaches students in the classroom.
When asked if Kasich’s budget proposal gives the schools enough money, he had only had four words as a response. “We’re working on it,” he said.
And that’s the attitude Batchelder brings to a lot of the issues he and the Republican Party plan to take on this session. While they’ve made headway on many items, Batchelder said they’re not done.
“We’ve got lots of plans. We sure do, and yes it will keep on going. I’m going to get my members out of here this summer. They have families. … But we’re going to keep on working the way we are,” he said.
Dittoe, who also serves as spokesman for the House majority caucus, said one of the next things on the agenda is an overhaul to the state election’s process. A bill was introduced last week that would allow voters to handle certain voting business online, like changing their address with the local board of elections. It wouldn’t allow them to vote online.
“They are really trying to streamline the elections process in Ohio,” Dittoe said.
He also noted that a lot of bills are probably going to come out of the ongoing budgeting process. He said the budget discussions will likely point to needed reforms.
That’s what Batchelder said he likes most about the state Legislature. He said it’s a body of government where one can effect a lot of change.
“Can you do it in Washington? Probably not,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Maria Kacik Kula at (330) 721-4049 or firstname.lastname@example.org.