Ohio News Media Association

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Final budget supports ONMA on several sunshine law issues

Dennis Hetzel Executive DirectorBy Dennis Hetzel, President and Executive Director

It’s crazy that Ohio’s state budget would have numerous items related to open records or meetings, but that’s politics enabled by the willingness of the Ohio Supreme Court to give lawmakers extreme latitude on the provision of the Ohio Constitution that bills should cover only a single subject. Hah.

The good news is that we were able to work with legislators to “repair and replace” a number of items in the budget, which Gov. Kasich has signed into law. None of Kasich’s numerous vetoes (which may or may not be overturned at this writing) created new concerns for ONMA.

We also were pleased that consideration has been delayed until this fall of bills that concern us. One is House Bill 8, which would block access to minor names in accident reports of school bus accidents. Another bill “on hold” is House Bill 64, which involves the destruction of public records in cases of false arrest. (Here’s a link to my column on this.) We have suggested ways to improve both bills that we hope lawmakers will consider over the summer.

Here’s a wrap-up of budget bill items that we addressed:

Municipal tax reform and other tax changes: A modified version of municipal tax reform took a tortured journey to passage, and will help many of our members save time and money by eliminating the need to file multiple tax returns with multiple municipalities.  Businesses now have the option of filing a single or estimated tax return through the Ohio Business Gateway for all municipalities in which they have tax liability. The Ohio Society of CPAs has put out a concise summary of the final legislation as well as other tax law changes in the budget.

Township website advertising: The legislation contains a provision that allows Ohio townships to sell advertising on their websites with certain limitations.  We would urge member newspapers to assess whether this represents a problem or an opportunity in their areas – or if their local townships are even interested.  If so, local papers could approach the townships to become the sales representative under a commission or other form of agreement.  Contact us if you have questions, and please keep us informed of any developments.

Drug fatality review boards: We worked to tighten this language so that appropriate records of these new boards would be public. The entire provision creating these local bodies was removed from the budget, so this is no longer an issue.

Long Term Care ombudsman investigations:  An amendment was drafted at our request for clarifying language to ensure existing investigative records of the ombudsman’s office would remain public. The state was making a technical change to conform to federal law.  The amendment didn’t make it, but based on conversations with the Dept. of Aging, we do not anticipate this should be a concern for journalists.

Lottery internal audit reports: Our amendment prevailed to ensure that the release of internal audits of the Ohio Lottery Commission will conform to existing law.

Probate issues and park boards: This flowed out of a dispute in Geauga County but language would have placed unreasonable restrictions on First Amendment rights. Following our objections and those of others, this entire provision was yanked out of the budget. Modified, acceptable language is in a separate bill the Legislature may consider this fall.

Teleconference public meetings: We obtained an amendment to ensure good rules if the state’s Ohio Banking Commission conducted meetings with teleconference or video conferencing tools. All of the banking commission language was removed from the budget entirely, so that is now moot. Gov. Kasich also vetoed language involving teleconference options for local Workforce Investment Boards, noting concerns that local rules could have allowed no members to be physically present.

Expungement and sealing: We raised serious concerns about unintended issues in a bill that could expose media outlets to costly litigation if they are notified to remove information about sealed or expunged criminal records from their archives or websites. The bill (House Bill 49) was plopped into the budget and remained there with one important change: It is now a pilot program, and we have assurances from the bill sponsor (Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg) that ONMA’s clarifying language will be made part of any permanent law. We also will make sure the attorney general’s office, which will administer the pilot program, understands our concerns.

IT procurement: ONMA successfully offered an amendment to protect records related to bids on the state’s IT contracts from being closed. The governor vetoed the entire provision, making our concerns moot.

Our ability to accomplish this much as legislators managed hundreds of competing demands reflects the respect that our organization receives in the Statehouse and hard work. I particularly want to thank Dan Jones, Belinda Jones and Dan Hurley, the trio of government relations professionals who represent us at Capitol Consulting.

One final note on public notices: Given activity around the country, no news is good news. The public notice situation remains stable in Ohio. We are closely watching North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where threats to print notices are looming. A North Carolina bill may become law that sets up a pilot project in one county to allow notices to move out of print. Pennsylvania legislators appear poised to move a bill that would create a government-run, statewide website for notices.

And, yes, we are glad the Legislature has gone home for the summer. As always, we welcome your comments and questions.

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