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New legislature likely to resurrect bills left for dead by its predecessor

Before state legislators start introducing bills in the new, two-year session of the Ohio General Assembly that is just getting organized, it is useful to look back at some of the key bills that were passed – or abandoned – in the final "lame duck" days of the last legislative session.

A few bills of significance to the engineering industry were passed before the curtain came down on the 130th General Assembly on December 31, most notably Senate Bill 378, which gives the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio greater authority for enforcing Ohio's underground utility protection laws (download act and analysis).

The bill creates a new 17-member Underground Technical Committee that will investigate complaints regarding violations of the underground utility protection laws and make disciplinary recommendations to the PUCO.  The UTC could recommend fines of up to $10,000 per violation.

Another bill enacted as the curtain was coming down on the session, Sub. House Bill 5, makes significant changes in the manner in which municipalities go about collecting income taxes.  This legislation could have both positive and negative implications for ACEC Ohio member companies.

On the positive side, it expands the “casual entrant” exemption so that a service provider may work in a municipality for up to 20 days annually without incurring income tax liability in that municipality, a provision that should be helpful to surveyors and environmental and geotechnical firms.  Previously the limit was 12 days.

To the extent that Sub. H.B. 5 (download act and analysis) results in a reduction in municipal revenues, as opponents warned it will, that will only put further pressure on the budgets of cities that are already strapped to find funds for capital improvement projects.

Sometimes we breathe a sigh of relief when legislators allow a bill to die, as was the case with House Bill 417, which would have effectively required local governments and their consulting engineers to give preference to the use of plastic pipe on public water and wastewater projects.

ACEC Ohio led the opposition to that bill, which languished after receiving only two hearings in the House Public Utilities Committee.  Similar legislation has been introduced – and rejected – in several other states.

One proposal that met a quiet demise, to the relief of many design professionals, is Senate Concurrent Resolution 25, which would have stopped state agencies from requiring that capital projects be designed in conformance with the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED v.4.

The resolution was initiated at the behest of the American Chemical Council and Ohio-based companies that produce building materials.  They claimed that industry has no input into the development of LEED standards and that LEED v.4 unjustly labels their products as unhealthy or toxic.

While the Senate passed SCR 25 last spring, it never came to a vote in the House, perhaps because of an agreement struck last summer between the USGBC and the American Chemical Council that gives industry greater input into the LEED development process.

The frantic competition among legislators to get their pet bills passed before the end of the session inevitably leaves some lower-priority legislation to wither on the vine.  That's what happened to House Bill 379, which proposed to provide civil immunity for architects, contractors, engineers, surveyors, and others providing volunteer services during a declared emergency.

That bill, which mirrors statutes already on the books in most other states, was passed by the House of Representatives last April and approved by a Senate Committee in early December, but it never found its way to the floor of the Senate for final approval.

It's common practice for legislators to tack amendments onto bills that are thought to be on their way to enactment, but in the case of House Bill 490, this practice blew up in the face of legislators in the House.

When introduced last March, the bill was focused on reducing toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie caused by agricultural chemical pollutants.  Over the summer and fall, the bill became a "Christmas tree," attracting contentious amendments on telecommunications regulation, changes in the Great Lakes Compact, disclosure of fracking chemicals, and exemptions from sewer hook-ups.

After growing to 264 pages, Senate President Keith Faber said in December that the bill contained too many issues for the Senate to consider in the few days available in the lame duck session, and the bill died of its own weight.

Many of the proposals contained in the bill are likely to resurface as separate bills in the new legislative session.

The first half of 2015 will be taken up with budget bills, the first up being the two-year spending plan for the Ohio Department of Transportation, followed by the "biggie," Governor John Kasich's proposed operating budget for the next biennium.







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