COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Proposed pay raises for government officials around Ohio were caught in a policy battle at the Statehouse.
The Ohio Senate unanimously passed a proposal Thursday to create an independent commission to decide pay levels for elected public officials, while the Ohio House passed a bill with bipartisan support to boost the salaries of judges, legislators and other elected officials.
Prospects appeared dim that either measure would become law with only days before the end of the lame-duck session, but state Sen. Bill Seitz said during a floor speech that he hoped lawmakers would avoid “tin-foil hat conspiracies” about the opposite chamber’s planned actions and cooperate.
State lawmakers, statewide officeholders and most county officials last received a cost-of-living adjustment in 2008. Judges haven’t seen an increase in at least six years.
The Senate resolution, sponsored by Senate President Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, would leave compensation decisions to a nine-member board appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. Faber told a Senate panel that 17 states have similar commissions.
“Such an objective review process takes the issue out of the hands of politicians, allowing a much more fair and transparent process,” Faber said in testimony.
Should the resolution pass this month, voters would decide whether to approve the idea on May 2015 ballots.
Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, asked Faber what would happen if voters don’t support the plan.
“If it doesn’t pass, I think that’s a pretty powerful message that the voters are concerned about giving pay raises,” Faber said, noting he believed elected officials and others would strongly advocate for it.
Faber’s plan is separate from a pay-raise bill a divided House committee passed Thursday.
Rep. Gerald Stebelton’s proposal would give cost-of-living increases to statewide officeholders and legislators in 2017. Judges would get a 5 percent increase annually for four years beginning in 2015, then cost-of-living adjustments until 2023. An advisory panel would then be set up to make pay recommendations.
He has argued raises are needed to retain and attract professionals to elected positions in government.
“This is the right time to enact this legislation and it’s the right solution for our local publicly elected officials and judges,” he said in a statement after the vote.
House Finance Chairman Ron Amstutz championed a “yes” vote on the pay raise bill, arguing that it was well-researched and had broad support among local government stakeholder groups.
“Anyone who wants to make the decision for good, even-handed governance would probably be a yes vote on this bill,” he said.
But state Rep. Mike Foley, a Cleveland Democrat, said supporting such a bill – which undoubtedly would be cast in a political campaign as a vote for bigger government – needed to come with assurances the legislation was headed toward becoming law.
“I worry, in the context of the larger political universe we live in, that this is a potentially trap vote, and that we’ve got members who could vote for this if it were a real thing,” he said. “I’m concerned that this is not a real thing, because the Senate is not going to take this thing up.”
State Rep. Alicia Reece, of Cincinnati, said she was voting against the bill because it contained pay raises for prosecutors at a time when the relationship between law enforcement and constituents in her urban district was tenuous.
Geauga County probate judge Timothy Grendell, a former state senator, told the Senate committee that Ohio falls way behind the majority of states with judicial pay.
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