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November 2021 Legislative Update

Legislature wrapping up 2021 session

As 2021 wanes, the Ohio General Assembly remains in session. However, both the House and Senate have stated that they do not expect to meet past December 9; although as with anything with the legislature, that is subject to change. Below are updates on HB 218, HB 327, and SB 135, all of which contain components that impact higher education.

House Bill 218
On November 18, the Ohio House passed House Bill 218. This piece of legislation had not been on our radar, because it was initially introduced as a bill to extend bar hours and exempt bars from the statewide curfew.

In the House Commerce and Labor Committee, a substitute version of the bill was adopted, which included the following new provisions, most of which will sunset in 2025:

  • Prohibiting employers, schools or institutions of higher education from requiring vaccines, drugs or other products that use mRNA, DNA or other genetic technology that has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration;
  • Providing exemptions for such mandates for medical contraindications, natural immunity and reasons of personal conscience;
  • Specifying that an injury from a mandated COVID vaccine is eligible for workers’ compensation unless the person receives compensation from national vaccine injury programs;
  • Barring entities from requiring people to show proof of vaccination to enter facilities or receive services;
  • Allowing emergency medical technicians with proper training to conduct COVID tests; and
  • Extending civil immunity provisions of prior legislation (HB 606, 133rd General Assembly) through June 30, 2023.

The full House approved the bill mostly along a party-line vote. We would prefer that the legislature stay out of matters on which institutions of higher education already have established their own policies, and this is what we had relayed in opponent testimony to the House Commerce and Labor Committee when they were considering similar provisions under HB 435.

The bill now moves onto the Ohio Senate. Senate President Matt Huffman had indicated that his chamber did not have much of an appetite for this kind of bill, but now that it is on his doorstep, we will see if the Senate decides to advance it to the governor.

House Bill 327
Known as the “divisive concepts” bill, which we have opposed because of the threats it poses to academic freedom, House Bill 327 still has been on pause. There has been no testimony on the bill since September 22. The only activity in the past month was the adoption of yet another¬†substitute version¬†of the bill on October 27.

We are hearing that there could be movement on this bill, or the other similar legislation, House Bill 322, in the two weeks of scheduled legislative session after the Thanksgiving break. While we also are opposed to HB 322 because of the limitations it would place on K-12 education, as well as the Ohio Department of Higher Education, our understanding is that the bill would not apply directly to state colleges and universities. As such, our focus has been on HB 327.

Senate Bill 135
Two hearings have been held on Senate Bill 135 in the House Higher Education Committee. At both hearings, bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Cirino answered questions by the committee, and there also was some invited proponent testimony.

We have been engaging with members of the committee regarding our concerns with the bill. The legislation would grant the chancellor power to establish policies to close low-enrollment programs and make decisions about new programs based on in-demand jobs. This could cause instability for programs and faculty.

Additionally, we are concerned with the provisions of the bill that would force state institutions to establish new bureaucracies for free speech complaints. Most of our institutions already have processes for all kinds of student complaints, and this has the potential to invite more issues than it would solve.

Moreover, we have pointed out that SB 135’s language promoting uninhibited free speech is in direct conflict with the provisions in HB 327 that restrain free speech. The legislature is going to have to reconcile whether it actually wants free speech on college campuses or whether it wants to restrict certain topics and the manner in which they are discussed.

We will provide further updates as these processes continue.

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