Exotic Animals Added To Ohio Legislative To-Do List


UPDATED: Sunday January 1, 2012 5:50 PM

With a nearly $56 billion, two-year state budget already in place, Ohio lawmakers head into a new year with their workloads a little lighter.
   
Next up: an agenda that is likely less controversial  than 2011. The year was marked with protests on the Statehouse lawn, packed hearing rooms and heated debate over collective bargaining restrictions for unionized public workers. Voters overwhelming rejected the new limitations in November.
   
Cracking down on the ownership of exotic animals and spurring development of the state's oil and natural gas industry are expected to be among the top issues before the Legislature in 2012.
   
Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets. And efforts to strengthen the state's law took on new urgency in October when police were forced to kill 48 wild animals, including endangered Bengal tigers, after their owner freed them from his Zanesville farm and then committed suicide.
   
Gov. John Kasich, a first-term Republican, has said he wants regulations in place quickly.
   
A study committee and state agencies have proposed a framework for new regulations that would ban casual ownership of bears, lions, monkeys, venomous snakes and other wildlife. Zoo, circuses and research facilities would be exempt.
   
The legislative framework suggests the ban start on Jan. 1, 2014. Owners would have to meet new temporary safety standards before then and register their animals with the state within 60 days of the law's effective date.
   
Ohio lawmakers will no doubt want to leave their own mark on the any new restrictions.
   
State Sen. Troy Balderson, a Zanesville native, has said he intends to pursue legislation on exotic animals, though he told Ohio Public Radio in an interview in November that a complete ban could keep some of the best private owners from having wildlife.
   
The Senate's next voting session is scheduled for Jan. 10, while the House is not slated to hold votes until Jan. 24.
   
Some lawmakers have been working with the Kasich administration on new legislation aimed at aligning the state's goals with those of the Great Lakes Compact.
   
This summer, Kasich vetoed a bill that would have allowed Ohio factories to pull more water out of Lake Erie. Several former Ohio governors and governors from other Great Lakes states had expressed concern about the measure.
   
The eight states and two Canadian provinces adjoining the lakes negotiated the compact to prevent the region's water from being shipped or piped to arid regions. Adopted in 2008, the pact outlaws such diversions with rare exceptions. Lawmakers have until December 2013 to implement a deal.
   
Senate President Tom Niehaus said he anticipates that a new Great Lakes bill will be introduced early in the new year.
   
State lawmakers are also planning to tweak rules that govern casinos and racetracks. And they will look for ways to aid the development of the vast stores of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in Ohio, including bolstering training programs to prepare workers for potential jobs in the industry.
   
Local government officials are worried that heavy equipment associated with drilling operations could damage their roadways. Niehaus said lawmakers would examine ways to provide support to communities to make sure roads can handle the heavier loads.
   
Mike Dittoe, a spokesman for House Speaker William Batchelder, said the House plans to discuss changes to public workers compensation, the system by which employees injured on the job through no fault of their own have their medical expenses reimbursed and lost wages paid while they recover.
   
Ohio has one of the few publicly run compensation systems, Dittoe said. He said House lawmakers would look at whether it should continue to be state-operated, fully privatized or a combination of the two.
   
The fate of several bills, including one that would impose the nation's most stringent abortion limit, is in the hands of the GOP-led Senate.
   
The so-called heartbeat bill would outlaw abortions at the first detectable fetal heartbeat - sometimes as early as six weeks into pregnancy. The measure was put on hold by Senate President Tom Niehaus after backers who had defended its constitutionality for almost a year asked for a pile of last-minute language changes.
   
Niehaus said that he was asked committee members to review the amendments, and get their recommendations about what to do next with the bill.
   
Another measure that has cleared the House and is pending in the Senate would ban texting while driving.
   
Niehaus has said he has concerns about whether a statewide ban would be enforceable, and he plans to talk to his fellow Republicans in the coming weeks about whether there are votes in the Senate to support it.
   
"Clearly there are a lot of people who are not using common sense and are texting while driving," he said. "If people want to text, I'm not sure that legislation is going to stop that. And if you can't enforce it, I'm not sure how you stop it."

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