HB 6 referendum fight highlights the troubling ways Ohio voters can be silenced

Cleveland Opinions 0 month ago

Whether Ohio voters will or won’t get a chance to veto House Bill 6, the nuclear bailout bill, is a question entangled in a legal thicket. But complexity and pettifogging can’t mask the stakes: Do procedural laws, and the ability of those with deep pockets to monetize success in a petition drive, wrongly impair Ohioans’ constitutional right to vote up or down laws the General Assembly has passed?

Nearly a century ago, in 1915, the Ohio Supreme Court seemingly answered that question. The court said the 1912 constitutional amendment giving Ohioans the referendum was crafted “to put it beyond the power of an unfriendly General Assembly to cripple or to destroy [it].” That’s not the only precedent on the issue, but, coming when it did, so soon after Ohio adopted the referendum, it deserves weight.

HB 6, passed in July, requires Ohio electricity consumers to subsidize the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear power plants on Lake Erie, plus two coal-fueled Ohio Valley Electric Corp. plants, one in Indiana, and it phases out the state’s renewable-energy mandate.

A group of HB 6 foes, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, wants Ohio voters to vote on the bill – a referendum. To trigger a referendum requires collecting, over 90 days, the signatures of at least 265,744 Ohio voters who live in at least 44 of the 88 counties.

On Oct. 7, though, having collected 221,092 signatures – a 44,652-signature shortfall – Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts asked U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. to order state officials to give the anti-HB 6 petition drive more time. The group said Ohio law (but not the Ohio Constitution), sets hurdles that must be cleared before signatures may be gathered. Example: A requirement that Ohio’s attorney general certify the truth and fairness of the petitions’ summary of a challenged law before signatures can be gathered.

Attorney General David Yost rejected the first anti-HB-6 petition summary but approved a rewrite. That process took 38 days of the 90, leaving only 52 to gather signatures.

Besides procedural issues, the anti-referendum conduct by pro-HB 6 forces, even by Ohio’s low standards, has been startling.

To suggest, as an assistant Ohio attorney general did in defending Ohio’s procedures, that the anti-HB 6 drive faltered because it was “fraught with bad business decisions” -- such as not paying petitioners as much to collect signatures as HB 6 proponents were offering them to quit -- verged on blindness.

The real issue is whether state procedural laws limit the exercise of an Ohio constitutional right.

Sargus ruled that these issues must be decided by Ohio’s Republican-majority Supreme Court, not by the federal courts.

The Ohio Supreme Court now has a chance -- and a duty -- to take a close look. Hanging in the balance is the degree to which Ohio will let voters check-and-balance what’s done at the Statehouse via a power enshrined in their state constitution.

The Supreme Court needs to answer that – not duck it. Government by plebiscite raises justifiable concerns. (Exhibit 1: California.) But so does government by insiders in Columbus.

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.

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