Large coalition urges Ohio lawmakers to reject a plan that makes it harder to amend the constitution
More than 100 faith, union, community, conservative, and progressive organizations are opposing a resolution that would make it harder for citizens to pass constitutional amendments in Ohio.
The groups have sent a joint letter to House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) and Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima), asking them to thwart the resolution. The plan, proposed by Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville), would require a citizen-led constitutional amendment to receive a 60% supermajority in order to be enacted.
Right now, there are three ways to put a policy change before voters — an initiated statute, a legislative-led constitutional amendment, or a citizen-led constitutional amendment.
With an initiated statute, citizens can collect signatures to prompt lawmakers to pass a bill. If they don't act, citizens can collect more signatures to put the issue on the ballot. But even if the issue wins at the ballot box, lawmakers could change the outcome later. An initiated statute would change Ohio law.
Lawmakers themselves can just pass a proposal to change the constitution with a three-fifths majority in the House and Senate to put an issue before voters, like they did with the bail reform and non-citizens voting issue Ohio voters approved earlier this month.
With a citizens-led amendment change, citizens can collect signatures that meet a threshold established by law. They need to gather more signatures than they would for an initiated statute and there are more hurdles in the constitutional amendment process but if voters approve it, lawmakers couldn't ultimately change it. And the latter, a constitutional amendment effort, is what this newly-proposed resolution addresses.
Opponents said the proposed resolution, which would make it harder to pass citizen-led constitutional amendments by requiring a supermajority of 60% of the vote, is unfair to voters.
The groups pointed out that a constitutional amendment put forward by Ohio lawmakers would still only need a simple majority for their proposal to pass at the ballot box.
Opponents said that means lawmakers will not have to deal with the same rules they are putting in place for citizens who mount campaigns to change the state's constitution.
Molly Shack, the co-executive director for the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, said it is unfair.
"One rule for me and another for thee is what this legislature is trying to do by raising the threshold from 50 to 60%," Shack said.
Dennis Willard worked with a citizens group representing members of unions for some public employees when they put a referendum on the ballot more than a decade ago to overturn limits on collective bargaining passed into law at that time.
More than 61% of those who voted in that election favored overturning the law passed by the Republican legislature and signed into law by former Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Willard said that effort took a lot of time, money and hard work. And he said it's not easy for citizens to mount a campaign like that.
Why backers of the plan say it is needed
But Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, said more needs to be done to keep "special interests" from injecting proposals with narrow support into Ohio’s constitution. So he said he's supporting the proposed resolution by Stewart.
“Something as serious as amending our constitution should really demand the kind of consensus necessary to get to 60%,” LaRose said.
Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said her group has also been leery of putting things into the constitution that don't need to be there. But she explained that many citizens groups opt for a constitutional amendment because the initiated statute route is just as difficult and less permanent.
"It's about the same number of signatures, it's about the same amount of time and about the same amount of money if you were doing a citizen-led amendment process to the constitution and we are saying 'reduce the number of signatures to pass a law and then create a safe haven so that the General Assembly couldn't just override what the people vote on at the ballot box,'" Miller said.
The proposed resolution to make it harder for constitutional amendments to pass on election day would ultimately require approval by Ohio voters with a simple 50% plus one vote majority. But the plan would need to pass the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate by the end of this year in order to be placed on the May primary ballot. As of now, there are not a lot of legislators speaking out in favor of the proposal though that could change.
There are several issues that have been talked about as possible constitutional amendments in the future.
One is an amendment that would change Ohio's constitution to protect abortion rights. Another could institute some gun reforms with another that would change the constitution to legalize the sale of marijuana for Ohioans 21 and older.
If this proposal passes the legislature in the coming weeks, and is approved by Ohio voters in the spring, it would be more difficult for groups that want to pass those constitutional amendments on abortion, guns or marijuana to be successful in the future.