Senate should take it slow on House Bill 206
At a passing glance, it looks as if there’s just no stopping a state traffic-enforcement bill from steamrolling its way into the Ohio Revised Code.
On closer inspection, however, House Bill 206, which would green-light township police to patrol and issue tickets on interstate highways, can and should slow to a screeching halt.
The well-intentioned bill, sponsored by state Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, is similar to a slew of other bills that have been introduced into the Ohio General Assembly since 2015, only to languish without successful passage in both chambers of the Legislature. That alone should keep the yellow light flashing.
And despite its latest incarnation’s speedy two-month journey through the legislative process to its overwhelming and bipartisan 83-11 passage in the state House this month, caution remains critical on House Bill 206.
Specifically, HB 206 would grant a police department in a township of between 5,000 and 50,000 residents the authority to make an arrest for specified traffic offenses such as speeding, texting while driving and unlawful U-turns on interstate highways within its jurisdiction if certain criteria are met.
Supporters tout the legislation as an added safety valve to ensure smooth sailing for motorists along popular and heavily traveled roadways. Township police could become partners with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which currently has exclusive traffic enforcement powers on interstate highways.
Those same supporters also quickly point out it is not designed as a speed trap to fatten the revenue base of township governments. That’s because the legislation calls for all of the fines accrued from township police ticketing to flow directly into the county’s treasury for countywide highway maintenance and repairs.
Nevertheless the legislation has caught our skeptical eye because it could have a serious impact on the Mahoning Valley, through which several interstate highways such as I-80, I-76 and I-680 traverse. We’re also home to several large townships that HB 206 addresses.
Under its veneer of public safety enhancement, however, lies some rough spots that merit the public’s and state legislators’ serious attention.
For starters, some reasonably question the appropriateness of using township resources to benefit a state agency. By encouraging township officers to take over some of the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s responsibilities, the bill is yet another instance of the state burdening local governments with unfunded mandates, former state Rep. John Boccieri, D-Poland, argued when similar legislation came before him in 2017.
In addition, given the recent trend of shrinking budgets for local safety forces, not all township police departments are itching to expand their patrol coverage territory. “We have our hands full trying to catch speeders on the township roads,” said one local officer.
What’s more, time spent trolling the interstates would rob township police officers of valuable time in controlling nontraffic-related criminal activity through large commercial townships such as in nearby Boardman.
In that regard, we tend to agree with the view of attorney Mark Finamore, who served as law director for several Valley communities in recent years, including Liberty. In his view, “You have to wonder that those (townships) that have small police forces, should they not be patrolling neighborhoods for break-ins and vandalism? It simply befuddles me. I can’t see township police cars on interstates adding any significant safety factors. I think it would be marginal at best.”
Given other pressing matters in Columbus, it’s likely this bill may well get buried without hearings this spring. If and when it does make it to the Senate agenda, however, we’d recommend its defeat.
Should it pass and gain Gov. Mike DeWine’s signature, we’d insist language in the bill that would not force the expanded jurisdiction on all township police departments remain solidly intact. In its current form, the legislation mandates that township trustees must pass a resolution to authorize the interstate patrols before they would be legal in any given community. We’d trust that trustees would follow the recommendations of their respective chiefs even if those chiefs oppose the expansion.
In doing so, they will go far toward serving and protecting township priorities and local control.