- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio has 132 state lawmakers - and about 150 state law writers.

While Ohio legislators introduce and pass about 2,000 bills and resolutions every session, they don’t write the actual legislation. That’s up to the little-known Legislative Service Commission, a non-partisan agency dedicated to helping lawmakers do their job.

LSC staffers are the unsung workhorses of the Ohio General Assembly - the ones who take lawmakers’ ideas for bills and translate them into official legal wording, taking care to ensure there’s no conflict with the U.S. and Ohio constitutions, federal law, or any other part of Ohio’s lengthy revised code.

They also write analyses on every piece of legislation, as well as on the governor’s massive state budget plan every two years. And when a lawmaker has a question about a bill or a policy, LSC will be there with an answer.

“I don’t think that we could do our jobs without them,” said state Rep. Niraj Antani, a Dayton-area Republican.

Created in 1953, LSC occupies several floors of a skyscraper across from the Ohio Statehouse. A number of the agency’s workers are attorneys, and many have been there a decade or longer, giving them a knowledge of the legislative process that most lawmakers - who can only serve eight years because of term limits - don’t have.

Such experience is needed at LSC because of the stakes involved. A slight difference in language can create major headaches - as lawmakers learned in 2013 when they discovered that a bill they passed raising rural highway speed limits to 70 miles per hour only applied to Interstates, not other highways like U.S. 30.

In such scenarios, the General Assembly can quickly pass another bill to set things right. What’s more worrisome is the prospect of finding flawed language in a proposed constitutional amendment, said Lynda Jacobsen, LSC’s division chief for judiciary and elections issues.

“The first time you have something you draft that you know is going to the voters to … become a permanent part of the state constitution, it’s a little nerve-wracking,” she said. “The first time it’s sued about, you kind of do the ‘OK, don’t challenge what I did on it.’”

LSC rarely makes such mistakes, said agency director Mark Flanders, because each bill draft is reviewed by several other people - including a staff attorney and the lawmaker behind the measure - before it’s officially introduced in the Ohio House or Senate.

The whole bill drafting process can take anywhere between a couple of days to several months, depending on the complexity of the legislation, Flanders said. The legislation they work on can range from a 4,000-page-plus state budget bill to a resolution recognizing “Hang On Sloopy” as Ohio’s official rock song.

And when the legislature’s in session, staffers sometimes have only a couple of hours to draw up an amendment before it’s voted on.

“We tell people when we hire people that a lot of legislative work is done at night,” Flanders said. “So if the legislators are here, then we’re here too, sitting in on committees and getting things ready for the next day.”

Such a job might seem intimidating. But Julie Rishel, LSC’s division chief for labor and management, said she enjoys the challenge of turning lawmakers’ ideas into laws.

“It’s fun to discover things,” she said. “I like the law. I know that sounds kind of canned, but I do. And I like when a member asks for something and I have to puzzle it out and figure out how to make it work.”

Under Ohio legislative rules, lawmakers are free to write their own bills - LSC is only required to review them before they’re introduced. But in practice, that rarely, if ever, happens.

State Rep. John Becker, a Cincinnati-area Republican, said that’s because LSC has become an “indispensable” resource for legislators with a bill idea, no matter how rough of a form it’s in.

“We can give them something on the back of a wet napkin,” he said. “We just make a phone call, send them an email, and then they get back to us with any questions.”

Becker said LSC is particularly good at working with lawmakers - without a hint of partisanship or political bias - to figure out what they want their bill to do and find the best way to do it.

“I’ll say, ‘help me think this through,’ and I’ll kind of just start rambling on some ideas, and they’ll kind of work with me to help me figure out what I’m trying to say,” Becker said. “Their job is to kind of help us to figure out what it is we want, because sometimes we’re not sure.”

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, https://www.dispatch.com


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