COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A bill to make the walleye Ohio’s state fish is ready to be heard in committee after gathering support in the state legislature.

The initiative is a collaboration between bill sponsors and NBC4 to also inform Ohioans about the legislative process, which began with an audience poll. Since the results (27.5% for walleye among nine choices) were announced in October, lawmakers in both chambers have guided the walleye effort through its early steps.

Soon after the poll, primary sponsor state Sen. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) sent a request to the statehouse’s Legislative Service Commission to draft a bill. Since then, the bill — actually two bills — are officially on the record and awaiting a first hearing.

Lawmakers decided to introduce identical legislation in the state Senate and House of Representatives — each a “companion bill” of the other — to give the initiative a better chance of advancing.

“It lets the other chamber know this bill is a priority,” Fedor said.

The text of Senate Bill 271 and House Bill 484 are the same, proposing to add a new line to the state’s body of laws in the chapter that includes state symbols:

The fish, sander vitreus, commonly known as the "walleye," is the official fish of the state.

Both bills can advance in their respective chambers at the same time, but leadership would eventually have to decide which one goes up for a final vote.

Fishing for support from colleagues

After the bills were drafted, but before they were introduced, primary sponsors looked for co-sponsors — other lawmakers who agree to sign on and mark their official support.

In the case of SB 271, Fedor and state Sen. Kenny Yuko (D-Richmond Heights) sent their colleagues a co-sponsor request document. It included NBC4’s poll results and a short pitch, Fedor said, “so people can read it, inquire more and make a decision if they want to put their name on the bill before it gets a bill number.”

Fedor also did one-on-one advocating with other members, using longstanding statehouse connections to get some Republican support for this Democrat-carried bill.

More than a dozen co-sponsors from around Ohio have signed on between the two bills, including central Ohio state Sens. Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus) and Jay Hottinger (R-Newark) and state Reps. Adam Miller (D-Columbus) and Kevin Miller (R-Newark).

Along with being bipartisan, this geographic mix of lawmakers is good for a walleye bill, Fedor said, because the fish is only found in northern Ohio.

“It’s a strong indication that the bill is likely to get more support and possibly get voted out of committee,” she said.

“And I think the polling really made a big difference,” Fedor added. “They paid attention to what the polling said and what people wanted, and so, therefore, they lent their support.”

Ready to swim in committee

With co-sponsors gathered, SB 271 and HB 484 were filed with the chamber clerk to get their bill numbers. After that, they were assigned to a committee called Rules and Reference, which assigned them to a committee related to the issue (called a “substantive” or “standing” committee).

Fedor and Yuko’s SB 271 is in the Senate General Government Budget Committee Committee, and HB 484, led by state Reps. Michael Sheehy (D-Oregon) and Lisa Sobecki (D-Toledo), is assigned to the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee.

Most of the action before a bill becomes law happens in its standing committee, where lawmakers, special interest groups and regular people can debate it over the course of several hearings.

Fedor said she expects this bill to be noncontroversial, but “we don’t know until the committee hearings, which then become even more interesting.”

Members of the Ohio Senate Government Oversight Committee hear testimony on a new map of state congressional districts on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth)

Committee chairs decide when a bill gets its first hearing, which is sponsor testimony. The next hearing is usually testimony from proponents, Fedor said, “people who want to see the bill pass.”

“There’ll probably be two or three hearings on that,” she said.

After that comes opponent testimony, and don’t forget any changes or amendments that bill carriers may make. And that’s before a full chamber vote and a repeat of the committee process in the other chamber.

But those steps are still in the distance for the fish bills that are still looking for their first hearings.

When will a walleye bill be heard?

Fedor said she hopes sponsor testimony on a state fish bill comes by the end of January. Lawmakers return Tuesday, Jan. 18, and Fedor, who has 21 years of experience as an Ohio legislator, said the General Assembly could make quick work of this final year of the two-year legislative session.

“In my opinion, (the fish bill could) get done by the end of February if we do this right,” she said, “because I think we’re going to have a short spring because this is an election year.”

“May at the latest everything’s done, buttoned up, and then campaigns, and then (the November) election, and then we come back, and then it’s lame duck season, and that gets to be wild.”

House and Senate rules require all bills assigned in time to a substantive committee to receive at least one public hearing. Committee hearings are a “major portion” of their work, according to an LSC guidebook for legislators, which adds that “the common practice in both houses is to hold at least two hearings on each measure, one for proponents and one for opponents.”

A flowchart adapted from an Ohio Legislative Service Commission guidebook shows early steps of a bill. (Illustration by Ben Orner/NBC4)

When a hearing gets scheduled and how far a bill gets in committee, however, is up to the committee chair. That doesn’t mean regular people can’t impact the process, though.

“Anytime a bill has a number, anyone can call, write, join a coalition group to advocate for that bill’s passage, whether it’s in that chamber or not,” Fedor said. “They can even write a letter to the governor and encourage him to make it a priority.”

Look up your state legislators here. Contact Gov. Mike DeWine’s office here. The committee chair for SB 271 is state Sen. Bob Peterson (contact him here), and for HB 484 it’s state Rep. Kyle Koehler (contact him here).