Ohio House upgrades cast aside after state Rep. Derek Merrin lost speaker’s vote

COLUMBUS, Ohio— As a power struggle was playing out in the Ohio House late last year, state Rep. Derek Merrin was considering a number of upgrades to the chamber’s furnishings that have since largely been cast aside after he lost the vote for Ohio House speaker.

Merrin, a Toledo-area Republican, asked House staff for a number of improvements for Ohio House members. He asked for all carpeting in the House to be replaced with plush carpeting. He sought new furniture, artwork, bookshelves, lighting and wall paint, as well as “larger and more regal” signs for lawmakers’ offices. He wanted members to get new, foil-embossed business cards, like state senators already have, as well as stationery on “cream or beige” paper.

Records show that House staff discussed Merrin’s requests as early as mid-December. However, before any of the changes were finalized, a twist occurred that derailed Merrin’s plans: on Jan. 3, he lost the speaker’s race to Jason Stephens, a Lawrence County Republican.

Now that Stephens is speaker, he has no plans to follow through with the upgrades sought by Merrin, according to his spokesman, Aaron Mulvey.

However, Mulvey said Stephens is looking into some “minor upgrades” of his own, though he added that “none are happening at this time.” Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer reached out to Mulvey with a follow-up request for more details on those potential upgrades.

Three days after Stephens was chosen as speaker, Kim Zianno, the Ohio House’s chief administrative officer, sent his office director an email marked “confidential draft” outlining the changes Merrin had previously requested. The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com obtained a copy of the email via a public-records request.

It’s unclear how much the upgrades Merrin wanted would have cost taxpayers. Stephens was elected speaker before House staff or the Ohio Department of Administrative Services were able to obtain price quotes, according to the email and DAS spokesman J.C. Benton. “While preliminary research was conducted and meetings were held, the most formal action taken was that paint and carpet samples were ordered,” Benton stated in an email.

However, the price tag for similar work in the past, according to statistics provided by DAS, may provide some idea of what Merrin’s requests would have cost.

  • In 2015, the state paid $6,777 for new carpet and $1,491 for new window shades in the House speaker’s office
  • In 2016, the offices of two House members were repainted at a cost of $28,942 and $18,926, respectively.
  • In May 2016, electrical and data upgrade to the House speaker’s conference room cost $3,667
  • In December 2016, the state paid $313,914 to repaint another four common areas in the Riffe Center in downtown Columbus, where House members’ offices are located. Last July, all common areas on three other Riffe Center floors were repainted for $41,295.

Because DAS wasn’t able to handle printing foil-embossed stationary and business cards, House staff contacted Marilyn Smith of Capitol Square Printing, but Smith didn’t provide a price quote before the speaker’s vote, according to Zianno’s email.

Smith told The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com that the order was canceled before she could give House staff a price. Smith declined to say how much such an order would cost.

The Ohio Senate’s most recent stationery purchase was in June 2021, when it paid $25,954 for card stock, letterhead and envelopes, according to Senate GOP spokesman John Fortney. All 33 state senators, who serve about 350,000 constituents per district, are still using that stock today, he said.

Merrin, in an interview, said that before House Republicans voted to back him for speaker last November, he had heard complaints about “several issues of deferred maintenance” that needed to be addressed, including old carpeting in poor condition, chairs with holes in them and badly damaged desks.

Zianno, in her email to Stephens’ office, appeared to support at least part of Merrin’s assertion. “We are overdue for carpet replacement,” she wrote.

It’s normal, Merrin said, for any incoming speaker to try to get more information about a problem that potentially needed to be fixed.

Merrin emphasized that he only asked what the cost would be to address the issues and that no final decisions were made.

“Any responsible person gets quotes and tries to get the best price so you can make a final decision,” he said, adding that he never saw any quotes “because the government is so slow.”


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