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Ohio governor visits hospitals, talks to families as decision on gender-affirming care ban looms

BEXLEY, Ohio (AP) — Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has been visiting hospitals and speaking with families helped and harmed by gender-affirming care as he decides what action to take on legislation preventing minors from obtaining such treatments, he told The Associated Press in a year-end interview Thursday.

“I’m trying to learn as much as I can to make a good decision,” he said during the sitdown at the Governor’s Residence, where he also discussed implementation of the state’s new recreational marijuana law, term limits, abortion, the death penalty and the 2024 U.S. Senate race.

DeWine has until Dec. 29 to either sign or veto the gender-affirming care bill, which also blocks transgender student athletes from playing girls’ and women’s sports, or he can allow it to become law without his signature.

He said he cleared his calendar this week in order to visit three Ohio children’s hospitals — in Akron, Cincinnati and Columbus — to study the issue. He said he’s also incorporating input from both proponents and opponents of the hot-button legislation and doing loads of reading.

“We’re dealing with children who are going through a challenging time, families that are going through a challenging time,” he said. “I want, the best I can, to get it right.”

Although gender-affirming care has been available in the United States for more than a decade and is supported by major medical associations, more than 20 states have enacted laws restricting or banning such treatments since 2021. Most of those states face lawsuits, but courts have issued mixed rulings.

On a host of other topics in play at the Ohio Statehouse, where fellow Republicans control both legislative chambers but do not always see eye-to-eye with the governor, DeWine’s highest priority is resolving recreational marijuana policy.

The Ohio House left an 11th-hour compromise dangling over the holidays that the governor had hammered out with the Ohio Senate. DeWine said passing legislation that clarifies Ohio law on marijuana sales is crucial.

He said the way things were left creates “a ridiculous situation” where Ohioans can legally use and grow cannabis but not legally buy it, and “does risk a growth of the black market.”

“There needs to be a sense of urgency,” he said.

The governor took no position on whether Ohio law should be brought into compliance all at once with a newly passed constitutional amendment enshrining abortion rights, as House Democrats have proposed, or be decided piecemeal in the courts.

“I think we’re all still trying to digest exactly where we are,” DeWine said. Though he strongly opposed Issue 1, DeWine rejected the idea that Ohio could act to defy it, saying “we follow the Constitution.” However, he added that he does not support removing “guardrails in regard to abortion” that have been enacted over the years, including Ohio’s parental consent requirement.

Regarding the 2024 U.S. Senate race, DeWine declined to say whether he will endorse anyone in the three-way Republican primary for a chance to challenge Democrat Sherrod Brown this fall. Candidates are Trump-endorsed Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan.

“Oh, well, we’ll see,” he said. “We have three very qualified people. They’re all friends of mine.”

DeWine, 76 and in his last term, said bringing the “ science of reading ” to Ohio schools probably will be the most significant legacy of his time as governor, though the move has prompted an ongoing court challenge. Lawmakers allotted more than $100 million to implement the changeover in the last operating budget.

DeWine said being able to convert the state’s education department, renamed the Department of Education and Workforce, into a Cabinet agency was a major accomplishment of 2023, though that move is also facing legal action. His administration also created a new Department of Children and Youth, which houses employees from six different state agencies and is already seeing results, he said.

Economically, the governor said the state’s bond ratings are high, its unemployment is low and businesses — particularly in the tech industry — are flocking to Ohio. “We’re a hot state,” he said.

On the possibility of repealing Ohio’s eight-year term limits, something Republican House Speaker Jason Stephens has said he may pursue next year, DeWine said only that he doesn’t believe support exists for the change, either in the Legislature or among voters.

DeWine said he supported term limits when Ohio voted to impose them in 1992 — over his wife’s objections. “My wife Fran told me at the time it was a stupid idea, so,” he said. “My wife is usually correct about things.”

It has been three years this month since DeWine announced to the AP that lethal injection was no longer an option for Ohio executions, creating what he dubbed an “unofficial moratorium” on the death penalty. Ohio’s last execution took place on July 18, 2018.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of state senators introduced legislation to abolish the practice. DeWine declined to say Thursday whether his overall position on the matter has evolved, or whether he has a stance on the repeal legislation. “Not to announce at this point,” he said.

He said he still holds out hope for a package of gun law changes that’s languished in the Legislature since the 2019 mass shooting in Dayton.

“Kind of jokingly, but seriously, when you’re the father of eight kids and the grandfather of 27, you have to be an optimist,” he said. He characterized the proposal as “very solid” and “consistent with the Second Amendment.”

Julie Carr Smyth, The Associated Press

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