Government A-OK: Ohio’s system of checks and balances avoids many federal pitfalls

When the Affordable Care Act in 2012 offered states the option of expanding Medicaid coverage to additional working families that couldn’t afford their own health insurance, then-Gov. John Kasich was determined to take advantage of the offer to extend coverage to millions of uninsured Ohioans.

Just as determined to pass on the option were many of Ohio’s legislators in the General Assembly, who warned that the expansion would add millions of dollars to Ohio’s hard-pressed budget once the federal government’s three-year grace period ended in 2015.

Realizing that the legislature would never approve any bill he might propose for Medicaid expansion, Kasich used a rare executive power in Ohio that permitted him to bypass the General Assembly.

He turned to the state’s Controlling Board, a seven-member panel of six legislators and one of his own appointees that oversees state spending on Medicaid and certain other expenditures. Kasich was able to pressure the board to approve by a 5–2 vote the expansion of Medicaid for the next three years, making Ohio one of 37 states to adopt the Obamacare option.

Ohio’s government, like the federal government, includes “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” designed to keep any single branch of government — executive, legislative, or judicial — from gaining too much power and threatening our freedoms as citizens.

The Ohio General Assembly (the legislative branch) makes the laws and controls state taxation and spending. The Governor (the executive branch) administers and enforces the laws. The Ohio Supreme Court (the judicial branch) is the final authority in the state on interpreting the laws and how they should work.

But each branch also has certain powers to constrain or bypass the power of the other branches. Ohio’s checks and balances differ from those at the federal level and, law experts say, avoid many of the pitfalls at the federal level, including government shutdowns.

A few examples:

  • Ohio’s governor has a “line item” veto that allows the office to delete parts of the budget passed by the legislature that the governor doesn’t agree with. The President does not have that power over Congress.
  • Ohio’s governor can cut funding to specific state programs if needed to balance the state budget, which by law can’t run a deficit. The federal government can and does run a budget deficit because it has the power to borrow money or print additional money to fill the gap.
  • Ohio’s General Assembly — comprised of both a Senate and House of Representatives, the same as the U.S. Congress — can override the governor’s veto of a law or new spending measure with a three-fifths majority vote. That’s fewer votes than the two-thirds majority required of Congress to overturn a presidential veto at the federal level.
  • Unlike the U.S. Congress, Ohio lawmakers have the power to decide if a state agency is exceeding the bounds of its authority and can restrict its actions. The Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review (JCARR), consisting of members from both the Ohio Senate and House, can curtail the powers of executive agencies without the approval of the governor.
  • Ohio’s executive positions — Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer and Auditor — are elected directly by voters. At the federal level, those are cabinet-level positions appointed by the President with approval by the Senate.
  • Unlike the U.S. Congress, the Ohio legislature must adhere to a “single subject” law for passing bills. The law is meant to prevent last-minute “riders” and “pork barrel” insertions that have nothing to do with the original intent of the bill but are sought by special interest groups and lobbyists. The Ohio Supreme Court has the power to determine whether a bill meets the “single subject” requirement.

Because of the governor’s line-item veto, Ohio can avoid the kind of government shutdowns that occur at the federal level. Under the U.S. Constitution, the President and Congress must agree on the entire budget before it can become law. The most recent federal shutdown in 2018–2019 lasted 35 days because President Trump and Congress disagreed over funding of a border wall with Mexico.

In Ohio, however, the governor has more power in negotiating spending measures with lawmakers because of the line item veto, sometimes called the governor’s “blue pencil.” If the governor strikes an item from the budget, the remainder of the spending measures can still be funded. Congress tried in 1996 to give the President a similar line-item veto but the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.

“The governor (of Ohio) doesn’t have to swallow a lot of things he can’t stand just to avoid a government shutdown,” says A. Christopher Bryant, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Cincinnati Law School.

Last month, Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio lawmakers disagreed on how much the state’s gas tax should be raised in order to pay for repairing and maintaining Ohio’s crumbling roads and bridges. DeWine asked legislators for an 18 cents-per-gallon tax increase. Legislators said that was too much for consumers to bear.

Ohio lawmakers argued for days over the right rate before approving a 10.5 cents-per-gallon increase on motor fuel and 19 cents-per-gallon increase on diesel.

On April 2, lawmakers sent the two-year transportation budget to DeWine with a 70–27 vote in the Ohio House of Representatives and a 22–10 vote in the Ohio Senate. The increase was less than the “bare minimum” DeWine had sought but it was clear the legislature had the votes to override his line-item veto. He signed the bill.

“We faced a crisis. We had to fix the crisis. We are fixing the crisis today by the action taken by the Senate and the House,” DeWine announced before signing the bill.

The compromise will bring in $865 million more each year in gas tax money — $524 million for state projects and $381 million for local governments’ projects.

Other compromises have not been so simple between the executive and legislative branches in Ohio. Ohio lawmakers have tried twice in two years to pass a Heartbeat Bill that would criminalize abortions once a heartbeat can be detected in a fetus. Former Gov. John Kasich twice vetoed that measure, arguing that the law would be declared unconstitutional after saddling the state with a costly court battle

In December of last year, Republican lawmakers in Ohio came up a single vote shy of reversing the governor’s veto and imposing one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Ohio Senators voted 19–13 to override Kasich’s veto, but needed 20 votes for a three-fifths majority. The bill would have prohibited the procedure at the first detectable heartbeat, as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

The direct election of Ohio’s top executives — including the Ohio Attorney General and Ohio Auditor — gives them more independence to oppose the governor’s policies or investigate wrongdoing in the governor’s office, says Peter M. Shane, a professor of law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

“Since the governor didn’t appoint them, they will have their own set of priorities and their own set of political ambitions,” he says. That’s obviously different from the federal level where [top executives] are appointed by the President.”

Shane believes that, overall, Ohio’s checks and balances are working better than those at the federal level, in part because Ohio citizens demand more efficiency from state government than federal.

“The public,” he explains, “has much less tolerance for political grandstanding and much greater insistence on problem solving at the state level.”


Support for Ohio Civics Essential is provided by a strategic grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation to improve civics knowledge of Ohio adults.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

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