COLUMBUS — Part of a new state law that prohibits elected officials from awarding government contracts to labor unions and other groups that give more than $2,000 in campaign contributions is unconstitutional because it was applied retroactively, a judge ruled.
The law, which was passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature at the end of 2006 and took effect in April, aims to prevent elected officials from rewarding big campaign donors with government contracts of $500 or more.
But the Legislature can’t change the rules of the game once it’s been played, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge John Bender said Friday.
“Finally, sanity prevails,” said Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown. The county, which includes Columbus, filed a lawsuit in May, saying the law’s retroactive provision was bringing government to a halt and delaying the financing of a new courthouse. Almost all the county’s contracts are worth more than $500.
The legal case was being watched across the state by school boards, city councils and boards of county commissioners, some of whom had complained that the retroactive provision was preventing government officials from awarding contracts to businesses and unions that donated under previously legal limits.
Bender ruled that disqualifying unions from contracting with public officials because of campaign contributions that were legal at the time “unreasonably interferes” with their free-speech rights.
But the judge didn’t rule on the law’s broader merits, which aims to help eliminate political influence buying.
Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann will review the judge’s decision and determine whether to appeal, said Mike Deemer, chief deputy attorney general for governmental affairs.
“We’re disappointed in the outcome,” Deemer said. “But the judge obviously carefully considered everybody’s arguments.”
Republican lawmakers who supported the bill said the retroactive provision was a drafting error and have already introduced a measure in the pending state budget bill to fix the problem.
In that case, an appeal could be pointless by the time it’s heard, Deemer said, because the legislative fix would take effect 90 days after the budget bill becomes law.