Watchdog group aims to turn lights back on with open records


By Farnoush Amiri - Report for America/Associated Press



FILE - In this July 30, 2020 file photo Ohio House Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Butler presides over a House session as members of the Ohio House of Representatives vote to remove Rep. Larry Householder as Speaker of the House on at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Hopes of repealing an energy bailout law are in danger at the Ohio Statehouse as Republican lawmakers argue sharply different positions on how and whether to repeal the legislation with only weeks before Ohioans begin to pay the price. (Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)

FILE - In this July 30, 2020 file photo Ohio House Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Butler presides over a House session as members of the Ohio House of Representatives vote to remove Rep. Larry Householder as Speaker of the House on at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Hopes of repealing an energy bailout law are in danger at the Ohio Statehouse as Republican lawmakers argue sharply different positions on how and whether to repeal the legislation with only weeks before Ohioans begin to pay the price. (Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)


COLUMBUS — A government watchdog group is hoping to turn the lights back on at the Ohio Statehouse by opening long-closed records to see who is influencing the legislative process after a $1.3 billion nuclear plant bailout that is now under federal investigation.

A proposal from Common Cause Ohio hopes to persuade lawmakers to once again bring transparency and accountability to the process behind a bill becoming a law.

The records surround discussions and decisions at the Legislative Service Commission, a nonpartisan agency that assists lawmakers with drafting and researching legislation. The records, also called bill files, include memos from a bill’s sponsor and material provided by lobbyists who asked the House or Senate sponsor to propose it.

State lawmakers voted to close the records to the public in 1999, citing that rival members of the General Assembly could read each other’s bill files to steal or stymie one another’s ideas, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

The effort by Common Cause to encourage lawmakers to once again unseal them follows a federal investigation into a nuclear bailout law passed last year that led to the indictment of then-House Speaker Larry Householder and four of his associates in July.

Catherine Turcer, the group’s executive director, believes that if the records were open, the scandal could have been avoided.

“We now know that if we were able to follow House Bill 6 from the beginning, there were lots of times in that process where we could have stopped it before it became law,” Turcer said, referring to the legislation that is now the subject of repeal efforts.

Previous attempts to bail out the two nuclear plants at the center of the legislation had stalled in the Legislature before Householder became speaker. Months after taking over, he rolled out a new plan to subsidize the plants and eliminate renewable energy incentives. The proposal was approved a year ago, despite opposition from many business leaders and the manufacturing industry. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

“This potential bill doesn’t mean we need to stop lobbying but we should also as the public understand how lobbyists are influencing the legislative process,” Turcer said. She hopes the bill will be introduced once the Legislature is back in session in January. It is unclear what opposition, if any, the proposal would receive from members of the two political parties.

The reason Ohioans stop engaging in the political process — whether it’s at the state government level or heading to the polls during a general election — is because of scandals like the one surrounding the nuclear bailout, Aristotle Hutras, former executive director of the Ohio Retirement Study Council, said during a Nov. 17 online event.

“Our job with respect to opening up the LSC and turning the lights back on with dark money groups is going to be easier than we thought,” Hutras added. “I don’t think anyone is suggesting that people should be prohibited from helping write legislation, but if it’s the people’s house, everybody has the right to sit down with legislators in a public office and talk over and draft legislation.”

Both Turcer and Hutras, who is consulting on the proposal, are hoping the bill will be named after longtime Columbus Dispatch reporter Jim Siegel, who died at the age of 46 last year.

“Jim was such a wonderful advocate of open government,” Turcer said. “I can think of no better way to honor his service and increase confidence in state government.”

FILE - In this July 30, 2020 file photo Ohio House Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Butler presides over a House session as members of the Ohio House of Representatives vote to remove Rep. Larry Householder as Speaker of the House on at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Hopes of repealing an energy bailout law are in danger at the Ohio Statehouse as Republican lawmakers argue sharply different positions on how and whether to repeal the legislation with only weeks before Ohioans begin to pay the price. (Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2020/11/web1_125848527-745c4d6040da43369d4c96132263229e.jpgFILE - In this July 30, 2020 file photo Ohio House Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Butler presides over a House session as members of the Ohio House of Representatives vote to remove Rep. Larry Householder as Speaker of the House on at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Hopes of repealing an energy bailout law are in danger at the Ohio Statehouse as Republican lawmakers argue sharply different positions on how and whether to repeal the legislation with only weeks before Ohioans begin to pay the price. (Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)

By Farnoush Amiri

Report for America/Associated Press

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