The effort to give Ohio voters a chance to weigh in on a $1 billion nuclear bailout is dead. The coalition of natural gas interests, green energy advocates and others opposed to House Bill 6 can’t match the spending of the nuclear-plant bailout recipients and others who support the law, so the court battle over a possible referendum is over.
But the questions raised by the fight shouldn’t fade away: Should the state’s process for approving a ballot-issue petition be allowed to cut into the 90 days the Ohio Constitution gives bringers of such issues to collect the required signatures? And do lawmakers need to do something to prevent campaigners on either side of such issues from using abusive, anti-democratic tactics?
These questions arose because of the extraordinarily fierce and nasty fight over the effort to subject HB 6 to a referendum.
The Dispatch opposed the bill, signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in July, and supported the referendum effort because the bill not only delivers a giant, ratepayer-supported subsidy to FirstEnergy Solutions, the owner of Ohio’s two nuclear plants, but also guts the state’s already-meager program to boost development of alternative energy. It also props up two dirty coal plants, one of which isn’t even in Ohio.
Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, the coalition opposed to the bailout law, launched a campaign to put a referendum on the November ballot. That effort was opposed by Ohioans for Energy Security, a pro-bailout, dark-money group that ran outrageously false ads claiming the referendum effort was the work of Chinese energy interests that have “infiltrated our energy grid.”
The group also hired “blockers” to follow and interfere with people trying to gather signatures for the referendum – leading to at least one shoving match – and hired signature-gatherers away by paying them more to collect signatures on a sham petition designed to confuse.
Along with the ridiculous “Chinese menace” ads, another ad campaign by Ohioans for Energy Security directly undermined democracy, by casting petition-signature gatherers in a sinister light as strangers sent into “our neighborhoods.” Most offensively, they urged people to “report” circulators to a “hotline,” as if they were committing a crime.
More likely, the hotline helped the referendum track the circulators so they could dispatch blockers to get in their way.
Amid this unprecedentedly hostile atmosphere, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts’ time to gather signatures was cut short significantly because Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost ruled that the first proposed petition was not the “fair and truthful representation” that state law requires.
By the time the group submitted a revised petition and Yost approved it, 38 days of the statutory 90-day signature period had gone by.
When the group failed to make the deadline it sued, asking a federal judge to declare that its signature-gathering time was unfairly shortened and undermined by opponents’ tactics. U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus ruled that the case should go instead before the Ohio Supreme Court, to answer the state-law questions raised.
We cheered when the state’s high court agreed in December to take up the questions, because those issues should be resolved. But the anti-bailout group withdrew its federal-court challenge last week, declaring it didn’t have the money to continue the fight.
On Jan. 31, the state Supreme Court dismissed its case as well.
If the issues that the HB 6 fight spawned are not to be resolved in the courts, the General Assembly should take a look at them. No one has accused Yost of foot-dragging for partisan reasons on the referendum petition, but the potential for any future attorney general clearly exists.
And unless some campaign guardrails go up, the resounding success of Ohioans for Energy Security’s nasty tactics is sure to breed more of the same in the future.