A consumer and business advocacy group that was at the forefront of a petition drive to get a controversial energy bill on the November 2020 ballot announced that plans to file petitions with the Ohio Secretary of State were on hold after a Monday deadline passed.
Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts was able to obtain approximately 221,000 “raw signatures,” according to spokesman Gene Pierce, who said that typically petitions have a 65- to 70-percent validation rate, meaning they were signed by registered voters and that the form was filled out correctly.
A total of 265,744 valid signatures were necessary to place the referendum on next year’s ballot, Pierce said.
Pierce blamed what he called “a campaign of deceit” on the part of proponents of the energy bill that included alleged unscrupulous tactics that interfered with the collection of signatures he said both discouraged and prevented people from signing the group’s petitions.
OACB alleged that tactics employed by supporters of the measure included spending millions of dollars on what they called “deceitful, racist and hypocritical advertising;” hiring thousands of “blockers” to interfere with petitioners; offering petition circulators bribes and attempting to buy signatures from petitioners; and circulating a counterfeit petition to confuse voters.
“The bogus petition they were circulating had no legal bearing at all,” he said. “In fact, it looked like something a high school student council would put together to get chocolate milk in the cafeteria.”
He also placed the blame on legislation passed in 1931 that caused a “blackout period,” that eroded 38 of the 90 days granted by the secretary of state in order to begin soliciting signatures in the field.
“We expressed to the federal court Tuesday that we all have a First Amendment right to free speech which expresses itself in the right to petition,” he said. “The Ohio constitution says that we get 90 days to circulate petitions and that was granted to us in 1912.”
However, he said that 86 years ago, the Ohio legislature changed the referendum procedure by requiring summary language and 1,000 valid supporting signatures for each time a draft is filed with the attorney general.
“That process took up 38 of our 90 days,” he said. “Unfortunately, the federal court didn’t see fit to give us our 38 days back, suggesting that this is something that should be dealt with by the Ohio Supreme Court.”
Supporters of House Bill 6, which was co-authored by State Rep. Shane Wilkin (R-Hillsboro), referred to the energy-driven legislation as an economic development bill that would enable Ohio to go from an importer of energy to a generator and exporter of energy.
Detractors of the measure, which was signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine on July 23, called it “an energy bill disguised as a nuclear plant bailout.”
As previously reported, the measure would add a new fee to electric bills for consumers in Ohio, with much of the collected revenue going to help bail out a pair of nuclear power plants on the shores of Lake Erie.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, an 85-cent per month fee would appear on Ohioan’s electric bills, raising about $150 million annually with about 90 percent of the revenue earmarked for FirstEnergy Solutions’ Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear power stations.
The rest of the money, about $20 million a year, would support solar projects being developed in the state, such as the Willowbrook and Hecate solar panel farms that are awaiting construction in southern Highland County.
According to Wilkin, he and fellow representative Jamie Callender (R-Concord Township) introduced House Bill 6 back on April 12 to create the Ohio Clean Air Program (OCAP), with the intention of offering an alternative way to encourage cleaner energy production in Ohio.
The drama of the legislation continued to evolve when OACB submitted a pair of summary petitions in mid-August to the Ohio Attorney General and Secretary of State in its efforts to place the issue before voters on next year’s ballot.
Both state offices gave their approval on Aug. 30 for the group to start gathering the nearly 266,000 signatures necessary to place the issue before voters, with an Oct. 21 deadline for submission.
Less than a week later on Sept. 4, the measure’s main beneficiary, FirstEnergy Solutions, brought a lawsuit with the Ohio Supreme Court claiming that the bills’ rate increases were, in fact, taxes, and therefore not subject to referendum, the group said.
Pierce said the fight to put House Bill 6 on the ballot next year isn’t over, but added that, like the U.S. Supreme Court, the Ohio court can refuse to hear the appeal.
“That’s where we’re at today,” he said. “We’re in the process of figuring out exactly what we’re going to do, where we’re going to go and how we’re going to file with the court.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.