Exotic Animals Part Of To-Do List in Columbus

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – With a nearly $56 billion, two-year state budget already in place, Ohio lawmakers head into a new year with their workloads a little lighter.

Next up: an agenda that’s likely less controversial than 2011. The year was marked with protests on the Statehouse lawn, packed hearing rooms and heated debate over collective bargaining restrictions for unionized public workers. Voters overwhelming rejected the new limitations in November.

Cracking down on the ownership of exotic animals and spurring development of the state’s oil and natural gas industry are expected to be among the top issues before the Legislature in 2012.

Ohio has some of the nation’s weakest restrictions on exotic pets. And efforts to strengthen the state’s law took on new urgency in October when police were forced to kill 48 wild animals, including endangered Bengal tigers, after their owner freed them from his Zanesville farm and then committed suicide.

Gov. John Kasich, a first-term Republican, has said he wants regulations in place quickly.

A study committee and state agencies have proposed a framework for new regulations that would ban casual ownership of bears, lions, monkeys, venomous snakes and other wildlife. Zoo, circuses and research facilities would be exempt.

The legislative framework suggests the ban start on Jan. 1, 2014. Owners would have to meet new temporary safety standards before then and register their animals with the state within 60 days of the law’s effective date.

Ohio lawmakers will no doubt want to leave their own mark on the any new restrictions.

Sen. Troy Balderson, a Zanesville native, has said he intends to pursue legislation on exotic animals, even though he said in an interview in November that a complete ban could keep some of the best private owners from having wildlife.

The Senate’s next voting session is scheduled for Jan. 10, while the House is not slated to hold votes until Jan. 24.

Some lawmakers have been working with the Kasich administration on new legislation aimed at aligning the state’s goals with those of the Great Lakes Compact.

This summer, Kasich vetoed a bill that would have allowed Ohio factories to pull more water out of Lake Erie. Several former Ohio governors and governors from other Great Lakes states had expressed concern about the measure.

The eight states and two Canadian provinces adjoining the lakes negotiated the compact to prevent the region’s water from being shipped or piped to arid regions. Adopted in 2008, the pact outlaws such diversions with rare exceptions. Lawmakers have until December 2013 to implement a deal.

Senate President Tom Niehaus said he anticipates that a new Great Lakes bill will be introduced early in the new year.

Lawmakers are also planning to tweak rules that govern casinos and racetracks.

And they’ll look for ways to aid the development of the vast stores of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in Ohio, including bolstering training programs to prepare workers for potential jobs in the industry.

Local government officials are worried that heavy equipment associated with drilling operations could damage their roadways. Niehaus said lawmakers would examine ways to provide support to communities to make sure roads can handle the heavier loads.