Sunday, May 28, 2000

General Assembly was busy

New laws cover range of important issues

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — As the curtain drops in Columbus, the 123rd General Assembly is leaving behind a list of new laws that affect everything from the taxes people pay to the electricity powering their homes.

The 123rd Ohio General Assembly passed more than 200 bills from January 1997 through Thursday. Here is a look at some of the new laws legislators approved that you may not have heard about. head Schools
• Senate Bill 1: Grants school boards broader powers to expel students who use weapons or seriously harm another person while attending another school's events.
• House Bill 160: Removes a $50 cap on the drivers' education fees school districts charge students to help replace state funds lost when a drivers ed fund expired last year.
• House Bill 121: Permits children to use asthma inhalers on school grounds, with written permission from a parent. head Crime
• House Bill 80: Drunken drivers convicted three times in six years must forfeit their cars to the state, instead of losing them to a 180-day impoundment.
• House Bill 428: Adds gamma-hydroxy-butyrate (GHB,) better known as the date-rape drug, to the state's list of illegal narcotics.
• Senate Bill 22: Drunken drivers whose blood-alcohol ratios register at .17 or higher must spend three to six days in jail. head Taxes
• House Bill 4: Lets taxpayers deduct medical expenses from their state income taxes, if the expenses exceed 7.5 percent of their federal gross adjusted income. The deduction will cost the state $50.2 million next year.
• Senate Bill 4: Taxpayers can claim a $500 state income tax credit for every child they legally adopt. The credit will cost the state $1.2 million next year. head Consumers
• House Bill 21: Consumers who lease their cars can get replacement vehicles or their money back if the cars continually break down and dealers are unable to fix them.
• House Bill 177: The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and the state Attorney General have broader powers to pursue and punish “slammers,” companies that switch phone or natural gas services without consumers' consent. Sources: Ohio Legislative Service Commission and the Ohio Legislative Budget Office.
        Legislators left the Statehouse Thursday for a three-month summer break, followed by a hectic fall campaign season. Aside from a brief return to work in Sep tember, serious debate probably won't resume until January, when a new crop of lawmakers is sworn in.

        In the past 18 months the Republican-controlled House and Senate passed a two-year, $40.2 billion state budget, restructured the state's electric power market, created a $10 billion fund for school construction and slashed the state's unpopular inheritance tax.

        While these were the most significant acts, they represent only a handful of the General Assembly's activities.

        Lawmakers passed more than 200 bills outside the spotlight, many of which focused on schools, crime, taxes and consumers.

        “I really do think we covered virtually every major project before we got out of here,” said Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale. “I'm very pleased with the work of the Senate and the House.”

        The state's boldest move in the education arena focused on Ohio's crumbling and crowded classrooms.

        With the help of voters and the state's historic tobacco lawsuit settlement, lawmakers created a $10 billion fund to pump up school construction over the next 12 years.

        They also passed a plan that makes slight changes to the formula the state will use to split the money among Ohio's 611 school districts. Cincinnati Public Schools will benefit from changes that allow districts to use private contributions and sales taxes in addition to local property taxes to match their allotted state funds.

        Besides school funding, lawmakers also granted school boards broader powers to expel dangerous students. A bill passed last year lets boards remove students who commit violent acts during sports events at other school dis tricts. Students who harass teachers and school employees or who commit other crimes off school grounds also can be expelled.

        Other bills made more specific changes.

        One lifted a $50 cap on students' driver's education fees to help schools cover increasing class costs. And students who suffer from asthma can now use inhalers on school grounds, with their parents' signed permission.

        Though lawmakers continue to make education their No. 1 priority, they face an Ohio Supreme Court decision ordering them to spend more on schools. In a 4-3 ruling, the court declared that the state's school funding system remains inadequate and too reliant on property taxes.

        House and Senate leaders appointed a special commission of legislators to study the ruling and suggest a response. Faced with spending billions more on schools, no one is promising a fast or easy solution.

        Although more spending appears likely next year, this General Assembly took several steps to reduce taxes.

        The biggest cut fell on the tax Ohioans pay to settle the estates of their loved ones. More than 27,000 people paid estate taxes last year, sending more than $400 million to the state and local governments.

        Gov. Bob Taft is expected to sign a bill that would eliminate taxes on up to 78 percent of the estates settled over the next two years.

        Estates valued at up to $200,000 would pay no taxes next year; the threshold would increase to $338,000 in 2002. The bill also includes a 36 percent tax cut on estates valued between $200,000 and $675,000 next year and on estates valued between $338,000 and $675,000 in 2002.

        The taxes on a $300,000 estate would drop from $11,600 to about $7,420 next year, and would be tax-exempt in 2002.

        The estate tax cut follows a short list of other reductions that passed last year. Those cuts include a new income tax deduction Ohio residents can claim to help offset expensive medical bills, and a $500 income tax credit families can claim if they adopt a child.

        Fiscal estimates show these three cuts will remove about $134 million from the state treasury next year. Despite that, conservative lawmakers and taxpayers groups say the state should be doing more.

        “The state is pulling in a lot of money,” said Scott Pullins, executive director of the Ohio Taxpayers Association. “I don't see a lot of political courage over there to cut taxes.”

        Of all the bills passed since 1999, one of every 10 tried to toughen up on crime and criminals.

        One attempted to catch up with the changing world of dangerous drugs.

        Gamma-hydroxy-butyrate, an odorless, tasteless chemical, is known as the date-rape drug because it can render victims helpless or unconscious. A new law now makes it a felony for anyone who is not a doctor to possess or use GHB.

        Lawmakers also continued their efforts to crack down on repeat drunken drivers.

        One bill would make drivers forfeit their cars to the state if they are convicted three times in six years. The new punishment replaces a law that impounds repeat drunken drivers' cars for three months.

        Another bill would put drivers behind bars if their blood-alcohol ratios far exceed the state's .10 standard. Drivers who register a .17 ratio or higher must now spend between three to six days in jail, along with the regular fines and loss of driving privileges.

        One of the most far-reaching acts of this General Assembly was its decision to allow electric power companies to compete for consumers' business.

        A complex electricity restructuring bill the Legislature passed in 1999 is intended to lower monthly power bills when competition begins in 2001. How much Cincinnati consumers can save, however, will depend on the rates competitors can offer compared with those already charged by Cincinnati Gas & Electric.

        Lawmakers also passed a bill designed to protect consumers from shady businesses that switch their gas and phone services with out their consent.

        The bill grants the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and the state attorney general broader powers to pursue “slammers” and recover consumers' money.

        Another law would protect people who lease “lemon” cars in stead of buying them.

        This bill lets consumers get a new vehicle or their money back if the car they are leasing continually breaks down and the dealer is unable to repair it. It expands a state law that offers similar protections to car buyers.


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