An Ohio legislative committee passed a budget amendment today that would turn $1.1 billion in Ohio opioid settlement money into in a private slush fund for local elected officials. The secrecy language was tucked into a 9,198-page budget bill, unannounced and without testimony.
The Senate Finance Committee added the secrecy language to the budget bill in an effort to override two court decisions that ruled the opioid settlement board had to make decisions in open meetings and tell the public how it is spent money.
The committee held 11 hearings on the $86 billion budget bill over two months. It heard from more than 500 witnesses. Nobody testified in favor of making opioid settlement spending secret. No senator mentioned the secretly hatched plan to turn $1 billion in settlement funds into a secret pot of money.
With committee approval, the giant budget bill goes next to the full Senate for a vote. The Ohio House of Representatives has approved a different version of the budget. So at least two more votes on the budget are required for opioid settlement spending to go dark.
Ohio’s two-year budget is supposed to be approved by June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. This must-pass nature of the budget, plus its massive size, makes the budget a popular dumping ground for policies that benefit special interest groups at the expense of the public. This change has nothing to do with Ohio’s budget, but everything to do with serving Ohio’s political class.
OneOhio opioid settlement
Ohio will receive $2 billion in opioid settlement funds over the next 18 years. Of that $2 billion, 55% — or about $1.1 billion — will flow through the OneOhio Recovery Foundation, controlled by local officials and state appointees. This $1.1 billion is the money the Senate Finance Committee hopes to make secret. The other 45% of opioid settlement money — about $900 million — will go directly to the state and 700 local governments. This 45% will still be traceable.
The OneOhio state board include 29 members, appointed by the governor, the Attorney General, legislative leaders and local governments. Most of the OneOhio board consists of elected officials, especially county commissioners. Twenty-eight of the 29 board members are White. The only Black member of the board is a recently retired Cincinnati vice mayor. The board includes no family members who’ve lost a loved one to an opioid overdose.
Follow the money
OneOhio has claimed since it first met in May 2022 that it was not covered by the Ohio’s Open Meetings Act or Public Records Act. Harm Reduction Ohio sued, saying settlement spending and decision-making was covered by Ohio’s open meetings and public records laws. Courts ruled in favor of Harm Reduction Ohio and ordered OneOhio to let the public know what it was doing.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled 7-0 on May 11 that OneOhio was covered by the state’s pubic records law.
The Franklin County Court of Common Pleas ruled March 9 that OneOhio was covered by open meetings law. OneOhio ignored the judge’s decision and continued to act in secret. On April 25, the judge issued a temporary restraining order enforcing OneOhio to comply with his ruling.
In all, OneOhio has held more than 30 secret meetings since it started in its first year of existence and spent about $1.2 million in settlement funds. None of this money has gone to reduce overdose death. Instead, hundred thousands of dollars has been paid to politically connected contractors and elected officials themselves.
For example, the sole proprietorship law firm of Ohio Rep. Jamie Callender, R-Concord, received a no-bid contract from OneOhio to employ the legislator’s son-in-law as OneOhio’s board secretary. And in a double dip, Ashtabula County Commissioner Kathryn Whittington, a Republican, parlayed her appointment to the board into a $50-an-hour part-time interim executive director position that pays $5,000 to $6,000 a month, depending on how many hours she works. She still gets her full-time salary ($82,577 in 2022) as an elected county commissioner, too. (Harm Reduction Ohio will report more soon on OneOhio’s politically connected financial dealings and its efforts to keep the details secret.)
What we know (for now)
Last Friday, after a one month delay, OneOhio complied with the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling to make spending records public. In response to a Harm Reduction Ohio public records request, OneOhio provided copies of previously secret contracts it had made with politically connected individuals. In addition, OneOhio provided an Excel spreadsheet identifying how it had spent money so far. (We’ll report on this soon.)
This basic information — how government money was spent, who got it — is what OneOhio wants to keep secret. OneOhio hopes its legislative friends will do what the courts would not: turn the opioid settlement into a secret slush fund, free from public scrutiny.
OneOhio currently has about $60 million in opioid settlement funds in the bank. If the budget amendment survives approval by the full legislature, the public would have no right to know how this $60 million — or the next $1 billion — is spent.
OneOhio promises to tell the public what it needs to know. What could possibly go wrong?