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After Eventful Week, Fight Over Nuclear Bailout Law Could Go To Ohio Supreme Court

HB6 Referendum petitioners collect signatures at Land Grant Brewing.
Andy Chow
HB6 Referendum petitioners collect signatures at Land Grant Brewing.

This week brought a close to one chapter for Ohio's nuclear power plant bailout law, House Bill 6. But another could be starting.

The group fighting against the bailout mounted a last minute push for signatures, and while it fell short of the signatures needed to trigger a referendum, they hope the Ohio Supreme Court will give them more time to collect signatures. 

Rachael Belz, executive director of Ohio Citizen Action, set up a petition signing station at Land Grant Brewing near downtown Columbus for the last weekend of petitioning. This was part of a statewide effort to gather more signatures before Monday's deadline to put the nuclear power plant bailout law up for a vote on next year's ballot.

"In this final stretch, people have been really upset that they haven't found anybody with a real petition yet. Friends of mine, allies, people that would normally signed it weeks ago but they haven't been able to find it because of all these tactics," says Belz.

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts was behind the signature effort. The donors of the group aren’t known, but its spokesman has said it’s the same consumer groups, business groups and renewable energy advocates who opposed House Bill 6, which created the bailout.

Belz says they had to start holding these signing events in private venues like this brewery to avoid their opponents, who hired people that allegedly harassed, followed, and blocked circulators from gathering signatures.

"I think the tactics from the opposition are incredibly slimy," says Belz.

Among their opposition is Ohioans for Energy Security and Generation Now, two dark money groups with connections to the power plants’ owner, FirstEnergy Solutions, and to House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford), a chief backer of the bailout.

Ohioans for Energy Security spokesman Carlo LoParo has tied the referendum effort to the natural gas industry, and wants lawmakers to continue changing energy law by banning foreign companies from investing in energy generation.

The opponents and supporters of HB6 collided again this week after Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts missed the deadline. By October 21, the group collected 221,092 signatures but needed 265,774 to even go to the next step.

So the anti-nuclear bailout group pinned their hopes on a case they filed in U.S. District Court asking for more time.

Here's how the argument breaks down. The Ohio Constitution grants 90 days for a group to try to referendum a law before it goes into effect. But Ohio law requires the Ohio Attorney General to approve petition language first. By the time the AG approved the group's second draft, 38 days had passed, giving the group only 52 days to collect signatures. That's why their lawyers said they had the right to more time. But the state's attorneys this has been the same process every referendum effort has faced for more than 80 years. 

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus denied the request for more time. But he did send lingering questions on the issue to the Ohio Supreme Court, suggesting that the state's high court had jurisdiction over the argument.

As of now, the law created through HB6 is in effect. The bill's sponsor says saving the nuclear power plants and making changes to Ohio's green energy policies are a better investment for the state.

"So it's good for the environment, it's good for jobs. It's good for the infrastructure that's there, it's good for the tax base, if you look at the school districts that are there where the two current nuclear power plants are, Davis-Besse and Perry, there'd be a devastating economic impact on those communities if those plants shut down," says Rep. Jamie Callender (R-Concord).

But the book isn't closed on HB6 yet. Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts is reviewing its options to take the argument to the Ohio Supreme Court, which has opened a docket for the case.

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