Ohioans pack hearing for controversial resolution to raise threshold for constitutional amendments
Dozens of Ohioans crammed into one of the smallest hearing rooms inside the Statehouse. Others went to an overflow room, while still others stood in a crowded hallway. They were there to hear testimony on a proposed resolution that, if passed by voters, could make it harder to pass constitutional amendments in the future by raising the threshold for passage to 60%.
The proposal now under consideration (HJR 1) would also require valid petition signatures equal to 5% of the population who voted in the last gubernatorial election from all 88 Ohio counties. Right now, signatures must be collected in 44 counties. And if there are any problems with signatures on petitions, backers would not have 10 days to "cure" those petitions by getting more valid signatures, as they can now.
The sponsor of the resolution, Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville), said changing the constitutional amendment process is a way to keep big monied special interest groups from inserting their agendas into the Ohio Constitution. But Democrats and opponents said it is a power grab by majority Republicans in this legislature that would take away power from ordinary citizens.
Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) said the legislature, which the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled is unconstitutionally gerrymandered, is trying to take voice away from voters who have no recourse but to propose constitutional amendments.
“This is a legislature that has no interest in being checked by voters. They picked their voters," Russo said.
The Ohio Supreme Court repeatedly ruled the legislative maps used in the November 2022 election were skewed to heavily favor Republicans. And after that election, Republicans have strengthened their supermajority in both chambers. There are now 67 Republicans in the House and 32 Democrats. In the Senate, Republicans control the chamber 26-7. All of the state's top offices are held by Republicans. and Republicans have a 4-3 majority on the Ohio Supreme Court. And while those maps were ordered to be redone after the election, lawmakers have not shown signs that they plan to do that soon.
Questions about the timing of the resolution to change the amendment process
The 60% threshold resolution would have to be approved by a simple majority of Ohio voters, as all constitutional amendments are.
It's possible Ohio voters could see issues to clarify the 2015 redistricting amendment, or to legalize marijuana, raise the statewide minimum wage, enact gun regulations and more. But the abortion amendment is the one that is imminent. A coalition of groups are in the process of gathering signatures that could put a measure on the November ballot to enshrine reproductive rights and abortion access in the constitution.
Republican state lawmakers pushed a law through last year that eliminated August special elections, citing the fact that the last one cost more than $20 million dollars and had a very low turnout. That law, which also requires voters to show photo ID and allows only one secure ballot drop box per county, takes effect April 7.
Late Wednesday, Senate Republicans filed a bill to create a special election in August for, among other reasons, "the purpose of submitting a statewide ballot issue to the voters under Section 1 of Article XVI, Ohio Constitution".
That would put a vote on the 60% requirement for approval ahead of the abortion rights vote in November.
"It does not escape us that they now want to spend anywhere from $20 to $40 million to hold another special election, likely where we would have turnout that does not exceed eight to ten percent. So again, the hypocrisy here has no bounds," Russo said.
But Stewart said the abortion rights amendment's possible inclusion on the November ballot has no bearing in the decision to bring this resolution forward.
“Everybody understands this resolution. There's no confusion about what it does. So at this point, we've been talking about it for five months. Everybody in this room knows what it does and doesn't do. So, the timing argument I think frankly is just kind of fluff," Stewart said.
A letter from Stewart in December noted that the change to the amendment process was needed because "the Left intends to write abortion on demand into Ohio’s Constitution" and that "Democrats now intend to rewrite Ohio’s Constitution to put (retiring Republican Chief Justice) Maureen O’Connor and other unelected liberals in charge of drawing legislative districts....that's just in 2023."
Democratic former House Rep. Mike Curtin, who's been fighting this 60% threshold resolution since a similar one was proposed last year, took issue with Stewart's denial that this resolution wasn't motivated by possible abortion and redistricting amendments.
"Never deny the obvious if you want credibility in life and especially in political life. This is about two issues. It's about the women's reproductive rights amendment which will be on the ballot this November and it is about the anti-gerrymandering amendment that will be on the November ballot next year," Curtin said.
Curtin said this amendment would actually make it easier for out-of-state interests that have deep pockets to make changes to the constitution. Opponents said ordinary citizens likely wouldn't have the financial resources needed to make the change if the proposed changes to the amendment process are put in effect. Stewart pushed back on those suggestions. He said he thinks there is support for this resolution.
"I think we've got pretty overwhelming support for the amendment in our caucus. I think now it's a question of you know, 60 votes is a lot, and so you've got to cross every 't' and dot every 'i'," Stewart said.
But if there is an August vote and this resolution is on it, Curtin said it will face stiff opposition.
"If this does get to the ballot, we are going to beat it bad and we are going to beat it in all 88 counties," Curtin predicted.
Many groups have already come out in opposition of the amendment.
Steve Stein, director of government affairs for the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters, took issue with the fact that this resolution is being considered in this way.
"This whole process demonstrates how out of step so much of this General Assembly is with the priorities of everyday Ohioans," Stein said.