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Speaker Stephens Signals a Stall on SB 83; Opponents Abound at House Hearing

Speaker Stephens Comments & Senators React
On the eve of another hearing on Senate Bill 83 in the House Higher Education Committee, House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) told reporters that SB 83 “doesn’t have the votes.” When asked if the bill was dead or if he was going to keep trying, he laughed and said, “I don’t know that I’m trying.” The Speaker has said for months that the bill needs work, and clearly, the latest version of the bill has not moved him to give the greenlight.

In response to these comments from the Speaker, SB 83 sponsor, Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), as well as Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima), said that they will not compromise any further on the bill and also threatened to pass the bill in worse form if given the chance at a future time. Sen. Cirino even accused Speaker Stephens of not knowing what’s in the bill and made other remarks that likely won’t enhance his bill’s chances with the Speaker.

We find this reaction from the senators deeply troubling, but not terribly surprising. Policymaking should involve bringing together stakeholders to find common ground, not to impose a single narrow-minded viewpoint. Clearly, this bill hasn’t passed because of its vast opposition; instead of offering to collaborate, they have dug in their heels. We appreciate that Speaker Stephens and members of the House Higher Education Committee have given the thoughtful consideration that a bill of this magnitude deserves.

Today’s SB 83 Committee Hearing
Earlier today, the House Higher Education Committee held a hearing for opponents and proponents of SB 83. There were 135 opponent testimonies submitted compared to just 14 proponent testimonies. You can find all of the submitted testimonies here on the committee website. Individual oral testimonies were limited to five minutes, and because Chair Tom Young (R-Washington Twp.) imposed time constraints on total opponent testimony, only eight witnesses had the opportunity to speak and answer questions. You can watch the hearing here on The Ohio Channel.

Prof. Steve Mockabee from the University of Cincinnati, who serves as OCAAUP’s Government Relations Committee Chair, delivered compelling testimony on our behalf that touched upon the problems of the bill as it pertains to academic freedom, tenure, and collective bargaining rights. Other AAUP members including Prof. Matthew Kraus (also from UC), as well as Prof. Angela May Mergenthaler and Prof. Christopher Nichols (both from Ohio State) also had the opportunity to give powerful testimonies about the problematic nature this bill poses for classroom discussions as well as recruitment.

We appreciate that John Plecnik, Cleveland State law faculty member and self-described “most conservative professor in Ohio,” made a persuasive statement about how the speech portions of the bill are very likely unconstitutional, and that the attacks on unions do not behoove the Republican Party. Excellent student representatives called attention to the fact that SB 83 is simply out of touch with what is actually happening on college campuses and raised concerns that the bill threatens the quality of their education.

The supporters of the bill almost exclusively attacked diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, most pointedly at Ohio State, in their defense of the bill, but there was not much discussion about the other facets of the legislation during the proponent portion of the hearing. Today’s hearing once again demonstrated that there is a miniscule amount of support for a miniscule portion of this legislation.

As Prof. Mockabee noted in his testimony, “Despite multiple offers to collaborate, we have not been invited to the table to discuss this bill outside of formal committee meetings. We are puzzled by the sponsor saying repeatedly that he isn’t anti-union, but then failing to engage the unions that would be most impacted by the bill.” The AAUP has made it known from the beginning that we are willing to discuss these issues and try to find common ground, but the legislators pushing the bill have not been willing to sit down with us.

Given Speaker Stephens’ comments this week, we think that we can breathe a sigh of relief for now. However, we have a two-year legislative cycle in Ohio, which means that SB 83 will still be a pending bill until the legislature adjourns in December 2024. Anything can happen, and we will continue to monitor the bill closely and provide any updates.

Once again, we cannot thank our members enough for your activism. We also owe a debt of gratitude to our coalition partners and union colleagues for standing side-by-side with us throughout this process. This has been a hard-fought battle under nearly impossible circumstances, and we have managed to stave off this grave threat to higher education to date. Happy holidays!

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