Cleveland Plain Dealer: HJR 1 would blast away constitutional amendment rights Ohio citizens have had for 111 years

As an exercise in cynicism, it’s bad enough that GOP lawmakers contend proposed House Joint Resolution 1 is just to keep the Ohio Constitution from being cluttered up with all sorts of special-interest nonsense.

In reality, the measure, which is still in committee, would all but trash citizen-initiated constitutional amendment rights Ohioans have enjoyed since 1912. It remains in committee in part because Republican House Speaker Jason Stephens, who owes his speakership to Democratic as well as Republican votes, still appears to be wavering on whether to allow it to come to the floor for a vote. Yet with GOP lawmakers overwhelmingly behind it, that might change.

But the cynicism of HJR 1 is made worse, if that can be possible, by the push to revive the August special election option that legislators virtually abolished just two months ago. Abolished so definitively, in fact, that Republicans have had to introduce another bill to allow (and authorize $20 million to pay for) a possible special election Aug. 8 to try to get HJR 1 passed before the November election.

And why that timing? Could it, cynically, be because the November election is when abortion-rights supporters aim to get a reproductive rights amendment on Ohio voters’ ballots? Many Ohioans likely will vote “no” on that measure, of course, but at least its proponents are not trying to gin the rules to make it virtually impossible for the “nays” to prevail.

It’s also not hard to see that behind HJR 1 and the revival of the August special election is the idea that a simple majority of Ohio voters shouldn’t be enough — that majority shouldn’t rule, that a majority of citizens’ wishes don’t count when it comes to overruling what Statehouse figures want.

Yet, if we are to draw any lessons from the Larry Householder/House Bill 6 corruption scandal, it is that what Statehouse figures want is sometimes very, very bad for Ohio — and that, if citizens as a whole want to amend what happens at the Statehouse, they should be able to, without poison-pill legislative maneuvering or dark-money corruption.

In January, August special elections were seen as unneeded, costly exercises by Ohio cynic-in-chief Frank LaRose, who as Ohio secretary of state is Ohio’s chief elections officer. LaRose was full of praise in January when Gov. Mike DeWine signed House Bill 458 into law. The bill, into which all manner of major electoral changes, including photo voter IDs and tighter absentee-ballot deadlines, had been crammed, started out life — and is titled — “Eliminate August special elections except for US House nomination.”

LaRose had applauded that part of the law, in particular, calling August special elections “a costly, low-turnout, and unnecessary election for our county (elections) boards to administer.”

Now, he and others can hardly wait to hold another August special election, courtesy of $20 million of our tax dollars (if Senate Bill 92, which is now pending in a Senate committee, or another measure authorizing this passes, of course).

Then there’s HJR 1 itself, sold as just a way to keep frivolous causes from littering the Ohio Constitution by making it harder to pass citizen-initiated amendments — from a simple majority to 60%. Never mind that a simple majority has served Ohio well for 111 years.

That’s not all HJR 1 would do.

The 60% threshold would apply to any constitutional change, whether initiated by citizens, the General Assembly or a constitutional convention.

Far less widely noted are two provisions that apply only to citizen-initiated efforts and that would make it almost impossible for regular citizens even to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot. HJR 1 would mandate petition-signature targets in all 88 Ohio counties, not just the 44 required now, and it would eliminate the 10-day “cure” period to fix any deficiency in signatures by gathering more if some are disallowed.

Ohio’s rigid signature-gathering rules already make it hard to get citizen-initiated measures on the ballot. Yet it can be done. That was the idea of the 1912 reformers in the first place — to check the raw power of a legislature disdainful of citizens’ views by making it possible for citizens themselves to appeal to fellow citizens to right wrongs and amend how things work in Ohio.

At one stroke, HJR 1 could wipe out those reforms and leave Ohio citizens’ referendum rights in tatters.