MARC KOVAC: Heated debate leads to rare floor apology in the Ohio House

Record-Courier Capital Bureau Published:

COLUMBUS -- Things got a little testy last week during the legislative debate on Gov. John Kasich's plan to use the Ohio Turnpike to leverage billions of dollars for road and bridge projects statewide.

So testy, in fact, that one Republican lawmaker had to offer a rare mid-session apology to the Democratic lawmaker who was the target of his comments.

"And now for the truth," Rep. Ross McGregor, a Republican from Springfield, told members of the House finance committee earlier in the week, shortly before calling out a Democratic member by name and noting her absence from a subcommittee debate on the bill. "... I think you're manufacturing a problem that doesn't exist."

Those comments, uttered toward the end of the House finance committee, didn't seem too over-the-top at the time -- in part because McGregor had laryngitis when he spoke them. It's hard to get too upset over an insult when the speaker is offering them in a higher-than-normal-pitch whisper.

But Rep. Alicia Reece, a Democrat from Cincinnati and the target, was not happy and attempted repeatedly to address the Republican lawmaker's contentions.

"Mr. Chairman," Reece said during the committee hearing. "I was personally attacked, and I think I deserve to respond."

Rep. Ron Amstutz, a Republican from Wooster and chairman of the finance committee, quickly stopped the back-and-forth, putting McGregor and Reece on the spot after the committee adjourned.

"I'm going to caution the committee not to make personal statements about other members," Amstutz said, the point is well taken. "We're not going to inflame it. We'll have that conversation between... the three of us afterwards."

Lawmakers make a point not to address other members directly by name during committee or floor deliberations. They'll mention "my good friend from so-and-so district" or "the gentle-lady from so-and-so county," but they generally don't come straight out and say, "Rep. So-and-So is an idiot." The context may imply the message, but names and direct attacks are frowned upon.

McGregor carried the turnpike legislation after it was spun off the larger biennial transportation budget, and he did not hide his disgust during committee hearings at Democratic members making allegations of "broken promises."

The governor said 90 percent of turnpike bond proceeds would go to projects in northern Ohio and tolls would be frozen for local commuters, but neither of those provisions was included in the legislation.

The turnpike bill passed along mostly party lines, with mostly Republicans supporting and mostly Democrats opposing.

But before the final debate and vote on the bill, McGregor rose on the floor to apologize to Reece.

"Yesterday in committee, I'm afraid, while we were debating the merits of turnpike legislation... I'm afraid that I let my senses go in terms of my decorum in addressing the issues that Rep. Reece was bringing up," McGregor said, adding, "I know that we debate things, and we're not always going to agree, but we have to maintain decorum and civility in that process or we'll lose all respect for anything that we do here."

Reece accepted the apology.

And then members launched into a lengthy and heated floor debate -- the first of the session -- with many pointed comments directed at no one in particular.

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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