Last summer, the Ohio Legislature voted into law House Bill 6 (HB 6), a bill that provides a monetary bailout for coal and nuclear power plants and deals a devastating blow to climate change policy in the state. Though the bill faced intense public scrutiny from Ohioans, a federal ruling last week has diminished the chance that the bill will be sent to a referendum on the November 2020 ballot.
The ruling was issued by US District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. of the United States District Court of Southern Ohio. The matter at hand was whether or not the anti-HB 6 group Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts could have an extension for submitting voter signatures petitioning for a referendum on the bill to be put on the ballot. Rather than summarily rejecting this claim, Sargus wrote in his ruling that this was not in the domain of a federal court and referred the case to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts solicited roughly 221,000 signatures, falling approximately 44,000 signatures short of the minimum required to get the issue on the ballot and argued that an extra 38 days would be enough time to get them to this point — 38 days that they felt they were denied by the Ohio Attorney General due to his delay in approving the petition. This question, alongside four others, was referred to the Ohio Supreme Court, which generally takes up cases referred to it by federal courts, though it is not required to do so.
The Ohio Supreme Court has decided to put the case on its docket, and each side has until Nov. 10 to submit arguments for why the justices should or should not pick up the case.
HB 6 was implicated in an earlier suit heard by the Ohio Supreme Court in September. The power company FirstEnergy Solutions sued Ohioans Against Corporate Bailout and argued that the monthly charges that the bill imposes on energy ratepayers qualifies as a tax and is therefore not subject to referendum. Three justices had to recuse themselves from this case due to their connections to each party: Two judges had connections to the pro-HB 6 side and one to the opposing side.
The case that now sits in front of the Ohio Supreme Court is as follows: According to WOSU Public Radio, Ohio’s Constitution allows groups 90 days to collect the requisite signatures for petitioning that a law gets voted on via popular referendum. However, Ohio law requires the approval of the state’s attorney general before petitioners can begin soliciting signatures. Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts argue that Attorney General Dave Yost, in waiting 38 days to sign the petition, only allowed 52 days to collect signatures. The state argues that the process has been the same for decades.
Though Judge Sargus felt that the case fell out of his domain, he did criticize supporters of HB 6 for using underhanded tactics. In his 29-page opinion, he cited testimonies where those circulating the petition were offered bribes to stop and referenced a “fake petition” being circulated by Ohioans for Energy Security, a group in favor of HB 6, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
Vox has called HB 6 “the worst energy bill of the 21st century.” Republican lawmakers in Ohio claim the bill will be good for the environment and for business. The latter point is not in dispute: WOSU reports that the bill will generate $150 million for FirstEnergy Solutions, which owns two power plants subsidized by HB 6.
Those in support of the bill argue that this money will go to the people who are employed by energy companies. Opponents argue that even if this is true, reduced emissions standards pose a greater risk to all Ohioans — and the world — in the long term.
In recent polls, as many as 70 percent of Ohio voters say they oppose the bill. For the time being, whether or not Ohioans will have a say on the future of HB 6 in 2020 rests in the hands of the Ohio Supreme Court.