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Ohio House Bill 6 repeal campaign files federal lawsuit challenging state’s referendum rules

By ANDREW J. TOBIAS • Oct 8, 2019 at 3:00 PM

COLUMBUS — As the clock runs out on their efforts to gather the signatures needed to put Ohio’s nuclear bailout law on the November 2020 ballot, the campaign seeking to repeal House Bill 6 is turning to the courts for help.

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts alleges Ohio’s laws have posed hurdles that have subjected their campaign workers to harassment and eaten into the 90 days the group has to block a law from taking effect.

It also says the rules are unfair because they don’t apply to the opposition, since Ohio’s issue-campaign regulations only apply once an issue makes the ballot.

“The committee’s referendum petition and associated activities have been confronted and challenged by an organized, well-funded and overly aggressive opposition effort with support from the power companies that stand to benefit financially from HB6,” the lawsuit reads. “The tactics against the committee and its supporters and efforts have involved harassment, assault and bribery of petition circulators. These illegal activities have further cut into the 90 days given to exercise their referendum rights and secure the right to a referendum by the Ohio electorate.”

(Scroll down to read the lawsuit, or click here for a PDF.)

Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for Ohioans for Energy Security, one of the pro-HB6 groups that has spent millions on “decline to sign" ads, declined to comment for this story. Gene Pierce, a spokesman for Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.

The lawsuit is a sign that Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts is struggling to meet the Oct. 21 legal deadline to submit the 265,774 valid signatures from registered Ohio voters needed to place HB6 on the November 2020 ballot.

The group has faced a no-holds-barred, well-funded opposition effort that drew a rebuke last week from Attorney General Dave Yost, the state’s top law-enforcement official. The opposition campaign hasn’t disclosed its donors, but FirstEnergy Solutions, the owner of the two nuclear plants bailed out by HB6, hasn’t denied funding the campaign.

The suit is separate from a different lawsuit FirstEnergy Solutions filed last month with the Ohio Supreme Court arguing that HB6 is a tax that’s not eligible to be repealed.

In its federal lawsuit, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts alleges Ohio’s laws have:

- Enabled the harassment of their paid petitioners, via required state forms containing the workers’ names and contact information.

One of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, identified only as “John Doe 1,” is someone who contacted the campaign expressing an interest to work for them.

However, “based on the prevalent harassment and hostility that petition circulators for the committee have faced,” he has said he will only do so if he can work anonymously, according to the lawsuit.

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts have said they’ve struggled to hire and keep petition workers because pro-HB6 forces have offered them more money to work on a competing petition drive that carries no legal weight. They’ve also alleged HB6 workers are buying out workers and their petitions, which Yost has said his office is investigating. And pro-HB6 groups have hired petition “blockers” tasked with following repeal petitioners and trying to prevent them from gathering signatures.

- Wasted some of the time the group has to collect the signatures by requiring them to wait first for Yost to approve summary language of their referendum.

The 90-day repeal clock started ticking on July 23, when Gov. Mike DeWine signed House Bill 6. But the repeal campaign couldn’t begin collecting signatures until 38 days later, on Aug. 30, when Yost gave his final approval to the group’s referendum language.

Previous statewide issue efforts have failed for similar reasons, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also challenges a section of the Ohio Constitution that requires referendum signatures be collected from at least 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties. It says this causes someone’s vote in a less populated, rural county to count more than someone in a more densely populated, urban county.

HB6, signed by DeWine in July, raises $900 million over six years for two Ohio nuclear plants owned by FirstEnergy Solutions, and $120 million for two coal plants — one in Ohio and another in Indiana — owned by Ohio utility companies. The subsidy is paid for by fees tacked onto Ohioans’ electrical bills — an average of $1.50 for residential users and up to $1,500 a month for commercial and industrial users. It offsets the new fee by slashing a different fee that pays for renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects.

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