It seems as if every state legislator has a bill or resolution aimed at helping Ohioans weather the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans, Democrats and even statewide officials such as Republican Attorney General David Yost have ideas on how to protect people, lower costs and get help to those in need.
Here are some of issues that started moving through Columbus last week:
The account that Ohio uses to pay people unemployment-insurance benefits is almost out of money.
In the short term, the state is likely to borrow money from the federal government, but legislators in both parties have ideas about how to fix the system for the long term.
One idea, which Republican Sen. Bob Peterson of Sabina wants to put to voters in November, is a constitutional amendment that would let the state issue bonds to repay federal loans.
The loans are interest-free, for now, but it’s possible that bonding would get Ohio a better rate later on, Peterson said. It’s no different from how people shop for the lowest rate on auto insurance or a home loan, he said.
“The resolution doesn’t solve the unemployment-compensation issue, but it does ensure any borrowing is done at the lowest possible cost,” Peterson said.
Another option to help close part of the gap would be to raise fees on employers, or to reduce benefits.
“It’s a difficult issue,” Peterson said. “It’s always a balancing act.”
In the House, Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said he’s open to the idea. The fund has long been considered insolvent because it had less than a year of reserves for benefits.
“We’ve had a problem in this state for a long, long time,” Householder said. “It would be good if we could find a way that it’s not all on the backs of employees.”
Should you be able to sue a hairdresser, doctor or restaurant owner if you get COVID-19 from their workplace? What protections should they be taking if they want immunity?
That’s what committees in the House and Senate were trying to decide as they looked at two bills last week.
Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, put together Senate Bill 308. It would limit the legal liability for a multitude of entities, including churches, doctors’ offices and restaurants.
Joe Savarise, executive director of the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association, said, “This very real threat is one of our biggest obstacles to recovery for an industry that will face other lasting economic challenges well into 2021 and possibly beyond.”
More than 20 industry groups testified in support of Huffman’s bill, including those that represent dentists, bankers, eye doctors, accountants and retailers.
“One lawsuit, even if it does not have merit, may be enough to tip the balance to final closure for a business,” said lawyer Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice who sits on the board of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants.
Bob Wagoner, president of the Ohio Association for Justice, disagreed, saying that accountability leads to safe behaviors and consumer confidence.
“The message we send to any business by providing them with immunity is ‘We want you to act safely, but we will not hold you responsible if you don’t,’” Wagoner said.
Lawyer Fred Gittes told The Dispatch that he thinks the legal threshold in these bills is so high that a doctor could be drunk during a COVID-19-related procedure and not face repercussions.
“It’s not enough they are doing something recklessly with disregard to the consequences; they would have to be doing harm consciously,” Gittes said. “How is that protecting anybody?”
Customers can choose not to go to a business that doesn’t require its employees to wear face masks, Gittes said. He is most worried about employees who don’t have the same options.
“This is really extreme,” he said.
Attorney General Yost wants to make sure that people can’t buy essential goods during an emergency and then resell them at a much-higher price.
He testified in support of Senate Bill 301, which would do two things: It would let Ohio’s attorney general limit how much of a product people could buy for up to 90 days during a state of emergency, and it would outlaw sales prices that were “grossly in excess of the price at which such goods were sold or offered for sale immediately prior to the state of emergency.”
As an example, Yost referenced the recent case of an Ohio man who went by the online name Donkey476 online and was caught selling N-95 masks at an 1,800% markup.
The man settled after Yost brought an action against him in common pleas court under the Consumer Sales Practices Act. But the attorney general said, “I don’t have the ability to tell you today that we would have certainly prevailed in that action.”
Republicans on the committee weren’t convinced, however.
Sen. Bill Coley, R-West Chester, asked why he should give Yost the power to limit product sales when the state could just give retailers immunity when they create policies such as one package of toilet paper per customer.
“Why inject government into a situation that doesn’t need government?” Coley asked.
And Sen. Theresa Gavarone, a small-business owner from Bowling Green, said she worries about the vagueness in the phrase “grossly excessive” because the prices of goods fluctuate.
Waiving fees and interest
Two Democratic legislators want Ohio to follow the federal government in suspending both payments and interest on state student loans for up to 60 days.
“Our recent graduates are in a truly unprecedented time in their lives and are facing an uncertain future,” Rep. Mary Lightbody, D-Westerville, said in a statement. “This legislation will help them manage their budget challenges during this health crisis.”
Meanwhile, a northeastern Ohio Democrat wants to offer delinquent taxpayers a five-month window (August through December) in which they may pay what they owe without penalties or accrued interest.
Rep. Thomas West, D-Canton, told a House committee on Tuesday that the idea is to bring in money owed to the state while helping people who are behind on their taxes.
“I truly believe that this legislation is a ‘win-win’ and a common-sense solution to the financial issues our state, our businesses and our people are facing as we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic together,” West said.
Holding on to federal funds
Ohio got $1.2 billion from the federal government to help its local governments cover pandemic-related expenses, but a bill introduced by Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, would release only $350 million of that.
Dolan said the state should hold back most of the money – which has to be spent this year – because mayors, Ohio’s federal lawmakers, and Dolan himself are lobbying the federal government to change its rules on how the money may be spent.
“We are pounding on them to ease up on the ability for local governments to be able to have a broader spectrum of use,” Dolan said during a committee hearing on Senate Bill 310.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s rules allow governments to use the money for expenses directly related to COVID-19, such as installing Plexiglas barriers or hand-sanitizing stations. It doesn’t allow municipalities to use the money to cover everyday expenses such as payroll.
Ohio mayors in both political parties have said that revenue lost from the government-ordered shutdown of much of the economy is their biggest financial blow from COVID-19.
From the Columbus Dispatch: Ohio lawmakers offer bills on profiteering, student-loan repayments
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