Whether the issue is helping Ohio change its income tax rates or making sure schools don’t lose state funding in the coming budget, state Rep. Steve Hambley, R-Brunswick, has been busy in Columbus since taking office in January.
The former Medina County commissioner replaced longtime state leader and House Speaker Bill Batchelder, R-Medina, who retired at the end of 2014.
“I’m enjoying it,” Hambley said Friday in an interview with The Gazette about his first four months as a legislator. “I’m jumping up to the task.”
Hambley took the seat as leaders and the Ohio House and Senate prepared to adopt the next two-year budget for the state.
Hambley noted the legislative process differs greatly from his former role as county commissioner, where he worked as one of a panel of three executives. “In the Statehouse, I not only need 50 other representatives, but I also need to get someone over in the Senate and the governor to support what I want to do,” he said.
Every piece of legislation must be reviewed by committees to consider the impact on constituents.
“In the committee, we hear from proponents, opponents and interested parties. It’s democracy at work,” he said.
Hambley serves on the influential Ways and Means Committee along with the Local Government Committee and the Financial Institutions, Housing and Urban Development Committee.
He had hoped to be assigned to the Transportation Committee because of past experience in that area, but said he didn’t have a strong preference and deferred to the wishes of House Speaker Rep. Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville.
“I said just put me where you think I can do the most good and I’ll bloom where I’m planted,” he said.
The biennial budget
The Ways and Means Committee allowed Hambley to have what he said was a big impact on decisions about tax cuts. That came up as part of the two-year budget passed by the Ohio House last week, which now moves to the state Senate. The House made significant changes to Gov. John Kasich’s initial budget proposal.
Kasich had wanted to cut the state income tax rate by 23 percent, but the House version dropped the cut to below 5 percent. The House version of the budget also did away with Kasich’s proposed increases for business and sales taxes and increases in taxes on oil and gas drilling.
Hambley said the budget includes an 11 percent increase in revenue over the next two years and the Ways and Means Committee couldn’t approve raising taxes when more revenue was expected.
“We said, ‘How are we raising taxes on anyone?’ ” Hambley said. “They heard us; it resonated well.”
Another change made in the House was appointing a tax review commission.
“Right now we have nine (tax) brackets, and it’s very progressive,” Hambley said. “The idea is to consolidate those brackets and reduce the rate.
“We’re trying to create a flatter tax rate.”
The state Republican-led budget proposal has drawn some criticism from the Kasich administration and Democrats in Columbus. The nonprofit research group Policy Matters Ohio has criticized the tax proposal, saying it primarily benefits wealthy Ohioans.
The average tax cut for earners in the top 1 percent would be $3,568 and the average cut for the middle 20 percent of Ohioans would be $52, according to Policy Matters Ohio.
“Ohio can ill afford such tax cuts, which will go mostly to well-off Ohioans, when we have gaping needs,” said Policy Matters Ohio Research Director Zach Schiller in a news release. “We need to restore aid to local governments.”
But Hambley said the tax changes are necessary to provide stability to business. He added that other financial changes made in the House restored funding to local school districts that would have been negatively impacted by the original Kasich school finance plans.
An amendment added by the House was called a “hold harmless” clause and would make it impossible for a district to get less funding from the state than it had received in the previous two years. After the funding for each district is calculated, if the new formula would give less money to the district, the school would then receive the same amount it had received in the previous budget.
“It basically made sure that at worst, no school district would lose money,” Hambley said. “No district is going to get less money.”
Hambley said working with lawmakers in Columbus has been easier than he thought it would be.
“It’s amazingly bipartisan,” he said. “I thought it would be more partisan than it is.”
The Ohio House’s 99 members include 65 Republicans and 34 Democrats.
He said the culture in Columbus encourages members to work together. Representatives and senators are each paid a yearly salary of $60,584.
“We’ve had joint sessions, and there are a number of bills that have a bipartisan sponsorship,” he said.
“Working with the other side is very common.”
While working together can be a theme of getting laws passed and budgets approved, Hambley said the culture of the Statehouse includes people keeping an eye out for what their next job might be.
He said sometimes votes are more about pleasing a lobbyist or special interest than a policy decision.
“A whole lot of people are worried about their next job,” Hambley said. “That’s the sadness of term limits.
“That’s a counter to good legislation and good process.”
Making Columbus home
Sessions keep Hambley in Columbus at least three days a week. His schedule fills up Tuesdays through Thursdays. He and his wife, Cheryl, purchased a condo in the suburb of Gahanna to use during the week. He said he hopes it will serve as an eventual investment opportunity because he doesn’t plan to live there full time.
“Tuesday through Thursday my schedule is full of committee meetings and other work,” Hambley said. “They allow some time on Monday and Friday to be in the district.”
In his office at the Vern Riffe Center on High Street, Hambley has a legislative aide and another staffer who manages his schedule and helps take calls from constituents.
Hambley said he has developed a good relationship with his legislative aide, Mike Cunnington, who has been an aide to Statehouse legislators for nine years.
“He knows the ins and outs and the back-story of what happened in the last Assembly and how to work with the Senate,” Hambley said. “He’s been awesome.”
But even as Hambley forges his own path and legislative priorities, he’s constantly reminded of the large shoes he fills in taking over the position from former House Speaker Batchelder.
He has become the middleman to constituents and business leaders hoping to track down Batchelder, known simply as “Batch” to many Columbus politicos.
“The number one call we get is, ‘Can you give us Speaker Batchelder’s phone number?’ ” Hambley said with a laugh. “To be honest, we really don’t have a personal number for him.”
Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.